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Fixing Misconceptions about Private Higher Education

COPHE Issues Paper, August 18, 2015.

As the debate about the reform of Higher Education continues, the context continues be skewed by those with a vested interest in preventing students at private providers from being treated fairly. Some regularly repeated misconceptions need to be addressed.

 This issue is too important for headlines to continue to tap into the fears generated by the Victorian VET debacle just to get a dramatic headline. The general public is not aware that VET and HE are regulated differently and work in a very different environment, but for informed debate, they need to be.   

 Here are some facts to help put this crucial debate into a more accurate context:

 1) Private providers are not 'new'. Many of them date back to the 19th century.

 2) Private providers have been able to access Fee-HELP since the HESA 2003 and there have not been any related failures or scandals.

 3) Private providers face much tougher scrutiny than universities. To survive, they need to deliver on top quality education year after year. CEQ results show that private providers perform much better than the universities when it comes to student satisfaction. About one in 10 Australian students already choose private education providers for their degrees despite the lack of government support.

4) Private providers do conduct research. About 12 providers are accredited to offer PhDs and TEQSA audits them to ensure they have research active staff. When an institution recruits staff with PhDs, they expect support for their research activity. All private providers have to provide evidence to TEQSA of active scholarship, of which discovery research is a part. Universities often find it challenging to demonstrate the AQF requirement that academics are qualified at one level above the level of the courses they are teaching.

5) Universities are engaged in so many private partnerships that the private/public divide is nonsensical in today's HE environment. Even the universities, through the Group of Eight paper Private Higher Education Providers in Australia, July 2014, noted that in Australia today the distinction between public and private institutions is not easy to define – and some experts even say “obsolete”. It is irrational as well as unfair, that this imprecise definition means that non-public university students face up to three times the costs for their education, including an extra 25% student loan administration fee. Meanwhile, the same return to the individual and our society applies irrespective of where a student undertook a course, of which all are subject to the oversight of TEQSA, the national higher education regulator.

The real risk to the ongoing quality and cost of higher education is the widely accepted practice of universities with insatiable appetites for research spending easily taking money from undergraduate students to cross subsidise research. This leaves the undergraduate students to carry the debt burden for years. When one of the Vice-Chancellors accused private provider business degrees of being lower quality than his own institution, it was revealed the evidence actually pointed in the  other direction  - see http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/bumcrack-college-cracks-back/story-e6frgcjx-1227082079764

Current HE policies also do not encourage private investment in the sector. Such anti-competitive policies would not be accepted in another sector and leave the Government bearing more of the HE cost burden than necessary. In the decade to 2010, student numbers in private providers increased by 64,500 to 81,305, therefore increasing capacity at little or no cost or risk to the government, effectively funding the establishment of the equivalent of three public universities. Now in 2014, 9.8% of all higher education students are enrolled in the private higher education sector.

The government’s proposed reforms provide non-public university students with equitable treatment and a great opportunity to choose the high quality niche courses only on offer in the private sector. The Reforms increase choice, diversity and equity, so the debate must to be conducted in a rational, accurate context.

-          Adrian McComb, CEO COPHE. Enquiries to info@cophe.edu.au

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