Head of global monitoring report on education says he is concerned about language of market and inequality
The public benefits of universities risk being further underestimated due to the increasing packaging of education as a “consumption good”, the director of an annual United Nations report has warned.
Manos Antoninis, director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, said societies had to be “very, very careful” that a growing emphasis on learning as a personal investment for financial return did not lead to a “degrading” of the “concept of education”.
Dr Antoninis made the comments after the GEM launched its report for 2021-22. It shows that around a third of students across the globe are enrolled in private institutions, ranging from elite universities to “demand absorbing” smaller colleges, with the highest shares seen in Latin America and the Caribbean (54 per cent enrolled in non-state institutions) and central and southern Asia (49 per cent).
Although the report says the global level has remained relatively constant in recent years, many developing countries are turning to private institutions as a way to meet increasing demand for higher education.
The report warns that without ensuring equitable financial access to such institutions, they could leave behind the poorest, pointing to regions like Latin America where advantaged students tend to make up a much higher share of private enrolments.
In Uruguay, almost 80 per cent of students at private institutions are from the richest 20 per cent of the population, compared with less than 40 per cent in public universities and colleges.
“Non-state providers tend to reserve access for those who can afford to pay. In some contexts, some may try to increase access for those who had been excluded. But in both cases, there is a risk of segregation in the tertiary education system,” the report says.
Dr Antoninis said the issue was not necessarily who was providing higher education “as one would expect that the government alone cannot cover all the demand” but whether regulation was sufficient to ensure quality and “that there is equitable access through measures that support financially those who otherwise may be left out”.
Camila Lima de Moraes, a GEM project officer who worked on the higher education section, said Chile was a “case where the government treats…private institutions and public equally” in terms of students having access to financial support, and this had helped improve the balance of enrolments.
“Having strong student support financial systems is important to ensuring access,” she said.
Dr Antoninis said understandably governments wanted to find the “golden line” between private and public higher education given tertiary education did benefit both individuals and society.
But he raised concerns about how education was increasingly being described in marketable terms, something that he felt could lead to an underestimation of the public benefits.
“More and more, under pressure from the providers who are non-state, education is being packaged as a consumption good and the language that is being used for that points people to think in that direction,” he said.
“There is more and more a feeling that it is about competing, outcompeting others, and therefore you invest to improve your own personal chances in the labour market and in life, and that risks degrading our understanding and concept of education. So that is an area where people need to be very, very careful.”
Private universities ‘relying on moonlighting public professors’
Private institutions in some developing countries are relying on “moonlighting” academics from the state sector to gain a foothold in higher education, according to the United Nations’ Global Education Monitoring Report.
The report points to research that shows that a large proportion of teaching staff in many non-state universities in rapidly advancing systems such as Malaysia and Nigeria are often working in addition to roles in public institutions.
While this “allows newer and smaller non-state institutions to gain legitimacy by employing respected public university professors”, it warns that such a practice can have “negative effects” on quality and student support.
Manos Antoninis, director of the GEM report, which is produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, said the ability of private higher education to expand provision could sometimes be exaggerated given the finite teaching resources each country had.
“[Resources] have to come from somewhere and in most cases private providers have to improvise because there simply aren’t enough people trained to teach at a university level,” he said.
“Sometimes they hire them from public universities, which in itself is a problematic case in the sense that it is probably a misuse of public resources”, given that full-time public faculty might be expected to be devoting their time to their own students.
However, he said regulating such practices could be fraught with difficulty and it may be better to address the causes, such as lower pay for academics in the public sector.
“The fact there is demand for private supplemented tuition should not lead to [governments] punishing those that practise it, but to try to gradually eliminate the causes,” he said.
Camila Lima de Moraes, a project officer on the GEM report, pointed to Mozambique, where there was an attempt to ban moonlighting professors, which led to “huge problems” and a “backlash” from academics.
“Regulating this point can be quite challenging and can have a lot of pushback,” she added, “especially if the regulation doesn’t come with other things…such as paying professors enough.”