Is it unthinkable that an Irish university could go private?

Ivy covered West College, Princeton, via WikipediaSome time ago, I mused that Irish universities seeking the freedom to set their own fees might decide to “de-nationalise” and “go private” by means of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, but I concluded then that it would never happen. Some time later, the old adage “never say never” proved itself once again, as I noted that the rector of Imperial College London suggested that Imperial, Oxford, Cambridge, the LSE and UCL should go private and form an independent US-style Ivy League. Earlier this year, Ferdinand von Prondzynski also speculated about this issue on his blog. Last week, things moved from speculation closer to reality: the Sunday Telegraph reported that Cambridge University is beginning to consider going private for precisely that reason, and the the Guardian yesterday reported that the LSE is doing likewise, amid fears a rise in tuition fees will not be enough to allow them to do what they already do let alone to compete with elite US universities. Of course, there are less drastic solutions, but the abolition of teaching grants for the humanities in the UK following the Browne Report might be the spur to this course of action:

Andrew Oswald, an economist and professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, says … “I certainly expect to see a number of large private universities of the kind that can rival the best on the east coast of America in my lifetime,” …. While he suggests Oxbridge could be reluctant to jump first, he expects it to happen among institutions near the top of the league tables. …

Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, sees little danger in greater private provision, so long as it is tightly regulated, with institutions forced not only to meet robust quality assurance standards, but to be fully transparent and accountable, in return for their students receiving public loans – something on which much private sector provision depends.

In this context, as James Vernon points out in a provocative blogpost lamenting the impending end of the public university in England, Buckingham University, once the only for-profit private in the entire UK, may well become the model. Indeed, it may well become the model for Irish universities too. A report in this weekend’s Sunday Business Post suggested that the long awaited Hunt Report on a new national strategy for third-level education will be published soon, and it will recommend that universities should be directed for the first time to spend their funds on set education and research targets:

The proposals would see third-level institutions being forced to sign up to agreed targets in the areas of research, access to education, teaching standards, the retention of students and the rate of course completion, according to well placed sources.

Third-level colleges will retain their existing autonomy to allocate resources to achieve these targets. However, under the plans being considered, if the universities fail to achieve these targets, a ‘‘beefed-up’’ HEA will be authorised to intervene and insist that colleges redirect spending if necessary to meet agreed objectives.

This kind of suggestion might just be the spur for some Irish universities to investigate going private too. But even if they do, it won’t all be plain sailing. Another story in the same edition of the Sunday Business Post reports that almost €7 million have been invested in the loss-making educational company Independent Colleges. It is a recent entry into the growing market for private Irish third level colleges, and it is backed by media group Independent News & Media (INM):

It emerged in court that the company’s revenue is off target by €350,000 this year, and that it will have to make a further cash call on shareholders of up to €1.7 million.

Food for thought here, as universities in the UK and Ireland face into difficult decisions and an uncertain future. Perhaps someone should look into cultivating ivy on college buildings?