The rise and rise of private higher education providers

The rise and rise of private higher education providers

Over two decades ago a new breed of Private Provider began to emerge in the Higher Education sector. These were profit driven, competitive and internationally ambitious organisations aimed at the market segment of potential students most unlikely or unable to attend fulltime on campus delivered tertiary education. The public universities looked on aghast – but were not in the slightest threatened by the newcomers.

These private (independent) entities (now referred to as IHEs) offered a variety of pathway and degree level programs and prided themselves on being teaching focussed.

The impact of the realities of COVID-19

As the realities of COVID-19 unravel the revenue strategies of the public universities, we can see that the business cases of the private entities appear to be more sustainable than many of those utilised across the public sector; and to be more able to swiftly react to changes in the HE marketplace and global political environment than most public universities.

Pursuit of quality and the student experience

And in terms of quality? Well, in Australia at least, QILT 2020 (published in 2021) has revealed that the private sector has done a better job of looking after students’ learning experience than even the biggest public players have. And of course, here we are only talking about those universities and providers who are fully accredited and have met the necessary Higher Education Framework and TEQSA requirements. Emphatically, these are precisely the same standards for everyone across the entire Australian sector.

Confidence in leadership in the public sector is being diminished

And whilst some public universities are crying penury one minute and are surprised by significant revenue surpluses the next - as well as supposed rampant student cheating unabated - confidence in leadership within the public sector is being diminished. Assertions of the public universities operating on behalf of public good in the pursuance of knowledge no longer ring as true as they once did.

The unthinkable point of realisation

So, we are now at a point of realisation which, 20 years ago, was almost unthinkable to most of us in the Public Sector. The differences between private and public institutions have been much eroded. Research and academic scholarship are still crucial and important territories of distinction between the sectors, but the steady corporatisation of top university leadership and the attendant commercial management behaviours mean that we need to adjust our understanding and expectations of universities and their leaders in order to meet the constraints of our new corporate HE environment.


Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is currently a Higher Education Consultant.

Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is currently Deputy Vice Chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.