Across the world, we can see something similar going on. Either because of cutbacks in funding or because of a need to get more money to expand higher education, higher education systems are being privatized. Of course, there are a few countries in the world, like the US, Brazil and some parts of Asia, in which private provision has always been a normal or even the predominant mode of provision. But what is different now is the sheer expansion of private funding, whether in the form of much-increased tuition fees or the rise of private providers.
For some of my colleagues, this is indeed a horrifying prospect. It seems to them more like the last days of the Roman Empire with barbarians being hired to shore up the ancient culture’s last lines of defence. For others, it is a welcome breadth of fresh air, a chance to shake off some of the shackles imposed by government.
But there is a more practical problem which is set off for me by reading Walter W. McMahon’s masterly Higher Learning. Greater Good. McMahon takes what looks like an economist’s viewpoint when he asks whether “the level of total investment in higher education financed by both private and public sources is economically efficient for growth and broader development?” and, subsequently, how far privatization should go in order for higher education to be economically efficient. But, as he well knows, these are not questions that are easily answered without some sense of what higher education’s spirit and purpose actually is: creating new knowledge, investing the population with skills, acting as a fount of citizenship, and so on.
What struck me, having read the book, is how difficult it is to make judgements about these questions. But one thing is for sure: it is best not to take too much notice of the ideologues. We have only the vaguest idea of what the total level of investment in higher education ought to be or what the appropriate mix of funding might be. I hold the suspicion that the United States has probably gone too far down the private route whilst continental Europe hasn’t gone far enough. The UK is currently heading off in the direction of the United States. But no one in the UK can really say with any authority whether this is actually “a good thing” or not. Evidence-based policy? I don’t think so.
So my question is: what incontrovertible evidence is there concerning the total level of and appropriate mix of funding out there which can be used in the debates now going on all around the world? McMahon provides some. More would be good!