Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Education for-profits or not? It depends

We live in interesting times. The talk of Maoist revolution in public services seems to have tailed off. However, in education there is a huge wave of change coming the way of education even if the NHS is centre stage at the moment.

A critical issue in education at the moment is whether for-profits will become significant players. In the medium term, the answer may depend on which sector you are talking about.

In universities, the minister responsible is keen on “alternative providers”. They have already arrived. As I have noted on this blog before, the professional training company BPP is getting University College status. Recently it was announced that BPP had teamed up with Swindon’s New College to offer a no-frills law degree for £3000 per year.

This week an article in the Times Higher Education by a consultant from The Parthenon Group global strategy consultancy suggested:

By charging £27,000 for three years, England and Wales have just become Treasure Island to for-profit companies that know from experience that they can teach degrees for much less.

The article goes on to suggest that the new entrants will shake up the incumbents:

Universities must begin to provide the platform for more sophisticated strategies, including: greater pricing differentiation; international growth; regionalisation; improved employer partnerships; greater student employability; and targeting particular student segments - for example, adult learners.

For-profits may be welcomed by the government in higher education but the red carpet is not yet rolled out in primary and secondary education.

The government’s free school policy is turning out to be less revolutionary than hoped or feared. Last Friday’s New Statesman points to “the Coalition’s free school dilemma”. The introduction of new suppliers in the schools market need buildings when there are constraints on capital spending. Jonn Elledge of EducationInvestor magazine concludes:

The government wants three things: to create enough new schools to shake up state education; to keep the profiteers out; and to keep the cost to the taxpayer down. But it can't win on all three fronts. One of them is going to have to give. And right now, it looks like the revolution will be the one to get tossed aside.

Not so long ago it seemed like the ban on for-profit free schools might be lifted. There were voices from policy wonks calling for a change – people like Julian Astle of the Lib Dem think tank CentreForum. Now it seems that the government – or at least the Lib Dem wing of the Coalition - may be more cautious in reforming public services – let alone allowing for-profit schools.

Maybe things will change for schools as well as universities. The Coalition has – potentially – another four years when a week is a long time in politics.

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