Private Higher Education in Europe

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

I write this morning from Warsaw, Poland at a conference on private higher education organized by my good friend and colleague, Jan Sadlak, the former Director of the European Centre for Higher Education – UNESCO-CEPES and currently President of IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence in Warsaw. I was privileged to sit on a panel with Wojciech Bieńkowski, Dean of the Department of Economics and Management, Lazarski University, Warsaw, and Liviu Matei, Senior Vice-President, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

Our focus was the increasing and emerging role of private higher education in Europe. While the United States has had a long association with private, not-for-profit higher education, the sector is relatively new in Europe. Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, was started with core funds from George Soros and is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Harvard, by comparison, is 375 years old.

The first question is: why does private higher education matter? In Europe especially, before the fall of the Wall, there was virtually no private higher education as described above. This growth is surprising if given the history of higher education in Europe and former Iron Curtain countries. But the global demand for higher degrees has pushed the development of additional supply given that the public systems in many countries have been pushed to their breaking point. It was interesting to hear this morning that Hungary is reducing their subsidy of public higher education in an effort to decrease the number of students because the government does not see the need for expansion. This, in turn, is likely to fuel additional private higher education, although a solution that will force more costs on the students themselves.

A second question discussed the role of private versus public education. This varies greatly by country. For instance, in the US, private higher education is associated with higher quality, even if the metrics for measuring quality remain limited. In Puerto Rico, public institutions are very highly regarded, while private institutions have reputational issues. The same is occurring, to a degree, in Europe, where private institutions have to fight for prestige in comparison to the fairly high-brow public universities. Professor Andrezej Kozminski, President of Kozminski University in Warsaw, was surprised that these public institutions have not yet installed gold handles in the bathrooms, a comment on the high level and wasteful public funding provided for the public sector.

Many of the institutions, and states, are unable or unwilling to increase the number of student seats at the public institutions of higher education. An answer to this is to allow the creation of private (not to be confused with for-profit) institutions to augment the public institution. These, of course, have a tuition charge associated with attendance, which is a completely different mindset from a society that embraced free public university education.

Arguably, private higher education is a necessary commodity in a global society, and expansion of this sector is necessary in many countries to meet the demand by users and business. The benefits accorded to the private sector include a quicker response to changes in the employment market than public institutions, and tailored programs more closely associated with market needs. Anatolli Adola, the First Vice Rector of the Ukraine, noted that the goal of private institutions is to “offer educational services of the highest quality that their consumers would prefer to get for money, rather than the ones of poor quality for free.” Thus, people will pay for services of quality that are unavailable elsewhere, or that are perceived better quality than other available commodities.

In the end, governments must create priorities on education and create the policies that best meet the needs of their economy and society. In Europe, as in many other countries, private higher education is an important vehicle to meet the new demand for higher education.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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