Private colleges - the compelling alternative to universities
Professor Paul Oslington comments on the growth of private colleges and their role in developing much needed competition in our Australian higher education sector.
Many of our young people leave the grand buildings, sports fields, and close personal attention characteristic of Australia’s well-endowed private schools, to enter our universities with their overcrowded crumbling lecture theatres, their penny-pinching, and their overburdened academics who do not have enough time for mentoring.
Contrast this with the American system where the resources available to universities (not just the top research universities) dwarf those available in most secondary schools. American student contributions are concentrated at the tertiary level – the American traditions of saving for college and of student loans are virtually unknown in Australia. Philanthropy flows to American universities. In Australia people tend to give less to education, and when they do, to give it is at the school level rather than to universities.
Part of the explanation is surely that a large and growing proportion of Australia’s schools are private (though with government subsidies) while almost all of our universities are public. In America almost the reverse is true, with most secondary students in public schools, and private universities institutions dominating the scene.
In comparing Australian and American higher education many commentators are seduced by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford Universities, but the biggest difference is the huge and mostly private college sector that exists in America but is almost completely absent from our system.
When Australians think of colleges they think of some alcohol-and-testosterone-fuelled student residence attached to a university (often under the banner of a church, with architecture and attitude mimicking Oxford and Cambridge colleges) or think of some dubious language college preying on the ignorance of foreign students. Or perhaps our former colleges of advance education, which were foolishly diverted from their noble task of technical and teacher education to become mostly poor imitations of universities. American colleges certainly include the dubious, but also solid community colleges serving their constituencies, and high quality liberal arts colleges.
We are beginning to see liberal arts colleges here. For instance the Roman Catholic Campion College in Western Sydney, Alphacrucis College in Parramatta associated with the Pentecostal churches (of which Hillsong Church is part), and Wesley Institute, Sydney (previously associated with the Wesley Mission) now owned by a denominationally-independent group of Christian business and professional people concerned to support quality higher education in Australia. These are just a few Sydney examples. All of these colleges emphasise pastoral care of students in a small institution with committed staff, and integrated education including ethics and theology which is only rarely found in Australian universities. Some are moving towards university accreditation; others see no good reason to seek this.
The growth of private colleges is a welcome development in Australian higher education. With more universities moving towards the Melbourne model that emphasises postgraduate professional degrees built on an undergraduate liberal arts foundation there is a market niche opening up for colleges like Campion, Alphacrucis and Wesley. There is a growing demand for teachers and education leaders for church associated schools, which our universities are ill-equipped to provide. Being outside the public system means the private colleges are more likely to attract philanthropic support that has thus far mostly benefitted Australian schools.
I find the public versus private terminology curious. Why do we describe a system increasingly swamped by Canberra political game playing and the costly idiocy of bureaucracy, with corresponding structures in the universities as “public” while the institutions outside it with much more community involvement and responsiveness to student needs (that tends to go with lower subsidies) as “private”. I think “politico-bureaucratic” and truly “public” would better describe the two types of institutions.
Competition from private colleges is likely to be much more effective than more Canberra bureaucratic supervision in arresting the widely recognised slide in the quality of education at the bottom end of the Australian university system.
Bureaucracy and poorly-designed subsidies are actually the problem. The quality enhancing effects of competition from colleges will be especially effective if the government becomes more even-handed about its support of colleges alongside universities (for instance funding student load on the same basis; allowing colleges with the capacity to supervise PhD students access to the research training scheme, and allowing colleges to apply for Australian Research Council and other grants). Well remunerated university administrators are likely to squeal at the prospect of greater competition, and run scare campaigns claiming that only a university crest above the front door can keep the charlatans at bay, when it actually provides excellent cover some of the worst of them. In no other industry would the incumbents be able to get away with insulating themselves from competition through setting unjustifiable barriers to entry or obtaining preferential subsidies that violate competitive neutrality.
As well as having governments having another look at regulatory and funding arrangements, students would gain from looking at the options before assuming that one of the universities is the best place to invest three or four years of their lives.
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Paul Oslington is professor of economics and dean of business at Alphacrucis College in Sydney. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This opinion article by Professor Paul Oslington featured in the Australian Financial Review, 30 September 2013, “Decent colleges will provide competition for unis”
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