Universities Going Private: Should We Ask ‘If’ or ‘When’?

Will any of the ‘big player’ universities attempt to go private any time soon?

With the news that Pearson is introducing for-profit private HE, “the first time a FTSE 100 company has directly delivered a degree course”, I wondered what other changes might be on the horizon for current universities.

In 2010, the Telegraph reported that an unnamed source from the University of Cambridge had suggested the university may have to go private in order to compete better and raise enough funds.

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Labour MP Barry Sheerman was also quoted, saying “I was told by Cambridge they may privatise themselves because they are so aggrieved by the cuts and by Lord Browne’s proposals”.

While the Telegraph piece went on to say that a Cambridge spokesman dismissed the idea of going private, they were also vague enough to explain that “The university has reached no official position on these matters”.

Add the fact that Cambridge also had “a funding gap of some £9,000 for each of its 12,000 undergraduates in 2010/11”, the new level of tuition fees isn’t going to bridge that gap. While fees may be higher for students, those fees are effectively a change to where the funding was already coming from. Some institutions may improve their income slightly depending on the fees they set, but in most cases there won’t be much extra cash flowing in.

Cambridge is one of the few UK universities that is graced with consistently large alumni donations. But that doesn’t mean the university can rely on that to make up for any shortfalls. Cambridge has other income streams too, but I’m sure it doesn’t wish to use these as a backstop either. That wouldn’t make sense. And no matter how strong the future appears, that won’t stop further considerations over the way the university is funded.

Oxford and Cambridge have just come under fire over special funding for their tutorial and interview process. Criticism like this hasn’t stopped the funding yet, but it puts further pressure on policy makers to remove the funding, and further pressure on Oxbridge to find alternatives.

Pearson’s move into degrees is of the for-profit type. Perhaps Cambridge, or another established university, would consider going private under a ‘not-for-profit’ banner.

When Universities UK reported on private provision of HE, it said “The for-profit/not-for-profit distinction is important, but even within the not-for-profit sector there is a wide range of provider”.

UUK go on to explain that many not-for-profit outfits tend to operate very commercially and are businesslike in their dealings, looking to make ‘profits’ of a kind. However:

“…their key motive is to promote public good. This is a key distinction between them and the private for-profit providers which, although they may be working in the same arena and providing a public good, do so in the expectation that they can earn surpluses which flow into the private hands of shareholders. An essential distinction therefore relates to the distribution and uses to which surpluses are put.” (2.8, p.14)

Current universities may not consider making a complete push to become for-profit entities, but what about not-for-profit possibilities? I wouldn’t rule it out.

The government’s HE White Paper goes as far as saying that not-for-profit providers would be able to apply for HEFCE grants in the same way as HE and FE institutions. (6.29, p.73) Is there enough scope for universities to change their outlook and manage a win-win?

My guess is that should any institution find a suitable way to go down this path, they would opt for not-for-profit billing.

However, a HEPI report on private providers questions whether the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit really matters. It first suggests that the distinction isn’t automatically necessary, because “the public interest lies in education of high quality being provided and consumer interests being protected – whatever the status of provider”.

HEPI does goes on to say that careful scrutiny would be required to ensure this quality and that impact can be assessed. It concludes:

“Care will also be needed in shaping a new and comprehensive regulatory framework.  If an equitable and broadly comparable regulatory framework is developed for all institutions in the sector, it may need some mechanisms for monitoring surpluses and alerting a regulator where the amount given to shareholders might be considered excessive.”

Distinctions probably do matter and are likely to do so for now, which is why not-for-profit seems most likely.

How viable is it for universities to smoothly transition into private entities? I’m sure other commentators may have a better view on these matters than I do. Whatever the case is, you can be sure that a lot of consideration has been going on for quite some time now.

While the Telegraph’s suggestion of Cambridge going private was ultimately dismissed by the university, it was clear that the situation was under continued assessment. In addition, Wendy Piatt of the Russell Group (which includes Cambridge in its membership) said that going private may be a necessity in the future. Reported in the same Telegraph piece, Piatt explained, “That would require a lot of consideration and we would hope not to have to go there, but we would certainly have to consider more radical options”.

As things stand now, those radical options may be looking sensible to some institutions. Not just Cambridge. Therefore, of universities going private, which is the most important question to ask: ‘if’ or ‘when’?

Why applying to Oxbridge shouldn’t be scary

Speaking in The Guardian, Mary O’Hara looks at applying to Oxbridge:

“Twenty years on from my graduation, it is upsetting that many of the barriers my generation faced are so prevalent for poorer youngsters today; that they are still so underrepresented in our top universities, and that those from privileged backgrounds retain their stranglehold on the professions. Just 7% of children are privately educated, yet they account for more than half of top doctors, judges and barristers.”

Oxford and Cambridge both conduct extensive outreach programmes, yet great difficulties remain in setting a more reasonable balance.

Nevertheless, the work goes on for staff at Oxbridge and they continue to face the challenge head-on. In most circumstances, it’s not for want of trying… Outreach is important; Oxbridge want to hear from engaged minds, no matter what their background and situation in life.

photo by deadstar 2.1

photo by deadstar 2.1

University College Oxford (also known as ‘Univ’) produces an Alternative Prospectus to help dispel fears and break down some of the barriers that exist for some students who would otherwise find a great place waiting for them. The guide, written and produced by current students, aims to give prospective students an idea of life at the college. It recently reached the finals of the Higher Education Liaison Officers’ Association (HELOA) Innovation and Best practice Awards 2010-11.

Anne-Marie Canning, Access Officer at Univ, kindly took some time out of her super busy outreach schedule to talk with me about the success of the Alternative Prospectus:

What first prompted you to design an ‘alternative’ to what was already on offer?

AMC: Alternative prospectuses are a bit of an Oxford tradition. Written by students for students they’ve been running for a few years. We’d had one at Univ for the past few years and we realized we kept running out of them before we ran out of our ‘normal’ prospectus. So we decided to reduce expenditure on our traditional formal prospectus and spend a little bit more on the alternative version. The alternative prospectus gives students more freedom to produce something really exciting. The students were really key in setting out what sort of publication they wanted to produce and we worked with a really imaginative designer to facilitate the project.

The alternative prospectus has a great feel as a newspaper. But how do you push the alternative side to those who prefer a more digital flavour?

AMC: We do have a PDF version of the alt prospectus available and we experimented with an e-reader but we found it to be fairly inaccessible and a bit buggy. You can see the new PDF is treated in a way that gives it an newspaper look. We also have a cool little tab on our Facebook page that loads up the lo-res PDF once you click it. It’s worth a little gander!

The ‘Univ guide to Oxford’ map is a great idea. Do you have any plans to make it an ongoing, interactive effort that can change and expand over the academic year?

AMC: The guide changes each year and we put a big map in the lodge with loads of pens and pins and people come and pop their favourite place. It’s not live but it does evolve and I really like the idea of keeping things nice and simple and lo-fi. I think on the ground engagement has a lot to be said for it rather than just having a techy solution. It also raised a lot of awareness and interest in the prospectus project amongst the student body. We obviously used lots of online media platforms to generate content though, so I think the answer is to use a mix of the two approaches.

How do current students and academics feel about the work you’re doing? Do you find them jumping in to help the cause?

AMC: I would say work that we’re doing rather than what I’m doing!

Current students drive much of the work we do here in college. Univ was the first college top set up an ambassador scheme which supports over 60 students in visiting schools in their home areas and volunteering on a variety of outreach projects. The ambassador scheme is a collaboration between the College and the Junior Common Room. Students are involved with e-mentoring, video-making, creating their own taster days and volunteer on a regular basis to welcome school groups to University College. But my favourite project is our Roadshow to South Yorkshire – 8 students go up to south Yorkshire and visit as many schools as possible in the space of four days to talk about the application process and what it is like to be a student at Oxford.

I think the fact that our tutors were willing to submit photos of themselves as teenagers for our alternative prospectus shows just how involved they are! Our outreach plans are made in conjunction with fellows of the College. They go and visit schools themselves and are really pivotal in offering a variety of subject taster days and our teachers’ conference and open days.

Is the alternative prospectus a hit with high-performing students who wouldn’t usually consider Oxford?

AMC: The alternative prospectus is enjoyed by all different sorts of applicants. I think giving an honest view from the ground is really appreciated by everyone. This year about 80% of applicants to University College said the alternative prospectus was invaluable in helping them to make their application choices.

Your “What is a tutorial?” page is useful, putting across an important aspect of the learning process at Oxford. How daunting do prospective students find new ways of learning, in your experience?

AMC: The teaching style at Oxford is unique. We don’t want people to apply to Oxford because we’re Oxford. We want people to apply because they love their subject and think the tutorial system would suit their learning style. Yes, it’s challenging but it’s also exhilarating. Here at University College we do a lot to support students in transitioning into university level study. We run a pre-sessional Maths week for all of our students in the sciences and maths subjects to consolidate their knowledge. We also team up 1st years with 2nd and 3rd year students via our study buddy scheme. The study buddies scheme gives first years a friendly face to ask any questions and get some advice related to their studies.

Does any one aspect of the prospectus outshine the others when students are choosing where to apply?

AMC: No, students would like information about all elements of the Oxford experience in my experience. Potential applicants want the full picture!

Higher education is going through a great deal of change right now. What type of changes, if any, do you envisage for future editions of the alternative prospectus?

AMC: I think we’ll respond to what our prospective applicants would like. We love our little newspaper but if people want something different then we’ll respond to their needs!

Finally, do you have any other words of wisdom or reassurance to high-grade students who aren’t entirely sure about applying to an Oxbridge college?

AMC: We’re looking for two things in our students. One is academic achievement and the other is passion for your subject. If you have those two things then give it a go! The only way to ensure you don’t get into Oxford is by not applying to Oxford. And if you don’t get an offer the chances are you’ll be going to another fantastic university (like York, my own university)!

Anne-Marie also told me that Univ have just launched a stop motion tour of the college, so you can get an inside view of the place. I’ll leave you with the tour below. Remember, you saw it here first. 🙂