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Growing Universities

By Danny Harrington


Both in the UK and here in Hong Kong, there is a severe shortage of undergraduate places. Schools are churning out ever growing numbers of students with the qualifications, the ability and the desire to attain a university education. And despite being perfectly aware of the demographic and the fact that schools have been driving standards up, successive governments have failed to adequately make provision for their continuing education. However, as both societies operate with a free-ish market economy, the private sector has generally tried to provide that which the government cannot or will not. The problem with university education is that it is very heavily regulated and not just anyone can set themselves up and start awarding degrees. There are some very good reasons for this not least the mantra of standards, standards, standards. As the UK awards university status to a private institution for the first time in thirty odd years this week, an old argument has been dug up.

The crux of it is, can we trust privately operated, for-profit organizations, to provide high-quality degree courses and thus individuals schooled to the standards that employers and society in general demand? For me the answer is a resounding yes, and here’s why.

The main argument revolves around standards. Critics of private universities fear that the profit motive gets in the way of true academic freedoms. At undergraduate level, this is poppycock. Of course we have to be careful about privately commissioned studies at research level, but why on earth would undergraduate standards be compromised? The bottom line of any profit-making organization is just that – profit. Profit requires revenue, revenue requires customers, customers demand quality. It is no use throwing years’ worth of future earnings at a degree which means nothing and which employers won’t recognize. Of course there will always be silly individuals who think that any piece of paper with the word degree on it will suffice. That’s why the fake degree industry thrives. Private universities are not part of the equation. Instead they have every interest, perhaps more than those vying for government funding, in recruiting good teachers/lecturers/professors to deliver quality courses. Without this, they are out of business.

Further to this, who ever said that private universities would not be regulated? In the UK the Quality Assurance Agency oversees all universities without exception and ensures standards are maintained. There are procedures in place for censuring any slip in standards including the ultimate threat of removing the degree-awarding status of an institution. As long as the governance is there, the providers will do the job required (most would do it anyway – it is highly cynical to assume private = privateer).

There are some legitimate concerns surrounding the rules applying to private universities in the UK. They are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act for example. And the rules on changes of ownership are considered to be too lax. But these are minor details, open to change. The fundamental truth remains that private universities have just as much interest in producing good graduates as any other. And the proof may be in the pudding. The University of Buckingham was the last private institution to be given university status in Britain, 34 years ago, when it became Buckingham University College. The latest Guardian University Guide ranks it 2nd in the country for Business and 6th for English behind Oxford, UCL, Cambridge, St Andrews and Warwick.

It seems that many critics are simply pinning their displeasure on the word private. It is a deep-seated political position. But they are naïve if they think the public sector is somehow disengaged from private financing. Universities for years have turned to the private sector for funding, donations and sponsorship. They regularly badger their alumni for contributions. Overseas students who pay inflated fees in full and on time are courted and the summer school business is shamelessly promoted. Money is probably the most talked about topic in higher education and where it comes from is probably the least point of concern.

So what for Hong Kong? Well, we have at least one private institution ripe for university status. If the government can see past the lobbying of the groups with a vested interest in blocking the move, then, done properly, it can only be a step in the right direction for our city.

By Danny Harrington

Co-founder of ITS Tutorial School

Dulwich College Singapore

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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