Regulation to combat collapse of private HE

The collapse of first UK/IRE colleges (first of many) operating validated/franchised degrees and for-profit HE (sub-degree) programmes, has raised the issue of private for-profit education and its ability to “properly educate” its clients (no, not students).

For me, the key issue in collpase of private HE, is the nature of these organisations, created as private, limited, companies, operating under commercial law, without much recourse to (sometimes non-existent) Higher Education Law. The pace of closures, one college shutting its doors over a weekend, another over a week, leaving their students dumbfounded, broke and uneducated, forced to seek alternative providers (and paying twice for the same programme), indicates that an “educational private limited company” is an oxymoron. The life cycle of a PLC and that of an HE institution are mutually exclusive. As are their finances.

If the individual nation states are unable or unwilling to create adequate protection systems for HE students, then maybe it is time for Brussels to step in and regulate this hazy, chaotic and fast-evolving industry?

It is clear that an HEI must be regulated for its specifics. Is education really a commodity or is it a public good? Should there be allowed private owners, able to withdraw profits or shut down upon financial collapse, based on a subjective, personal, emotional, selfish decision? Why cannot all HEIs have charity status (even there, profits can be appropriated and extracted, but through less easy means)? Critical decision-making ought to be moved away from single individuals and put in the hands of collectives, some kind of supervisory boards (despite the fact that they keep on failing in governing corporations) – a few dedicated people will have a different rationality to a lone owner. There should be education-related financial guarantees, focused on the ability of the school to sustain the delivery of programmes until their completion: the Irish system of financial bonding is nice, in Poland the HEI is expected to continue educating while selling-off its assets to pay for delivery, while in Greece there is a minimal fee (.5 mil EUR I think) to operate an HEI.

Part of the responsibility for assuring continuity of education should fall on the regulator, preferably in a way that allows the students to continue receiving their education at the same location and gaining the title/certificate that they chose. Unfortunately, this goes in the direction of large and competent Ministries with actual competencies in HE, able to take on the task of running a collapse HEI or providing some centralised educational location. The Irish had a decent idea – demanding that private HEIs have signed “alternative provision arrangements” (with other private HEIs) in case of collapse, but I don’t think it is enough.

A key issue is the provision of degrees – in the West many private HEIs operate programmes ending with the awarding of degrees from a different institution. In my world, they are not really HEIs, but rather “a business making available learning facilities and providing administrative support for an established academic institution to operate outside its own campus”. Currently, most universities that have externalised their programmes expect other private HEIs to pick up the abandoned students from a collapsed pHEI rather than taking them all in and completing the education process at the Alma Mater.

Private = for profit. For profit = non-academic rationality. Non-academic = not higher education.