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Blurring between public and private higher education

In past decades higher education in Slovenia has been characterised by increasing globalisation, market-orientation and the privatisation of public and growth of private institutions. But the difference between the public and private sectors is not as obvious as one might think, with the former looking increasingly like the latter.

For instance, public higher education institutions are attracting more part-time students who are employed or mature and pay tuition fees to study, while private institutions are receiving public funding.

Characteristics of higher education

In 2010-11 there were 91,539 higher education students in Slovenia, including 75,765 undergraduates and 15,774 postgraduates. Just under 22% of all students were enrolled in part-time (subject to tuition fees) studies. Women represented 63% of all students.

A further almost 16,000 students were enrolled in two-year higher vocational study programmes, taking the total number of students to more than 107,000.

According to Eurostat, in 2008 Slovenia allocated 1.22% of gross domestic product to tertiary education, which was above the European Union average of 1.14% of GDP.

However, funds to institutions were below the EU average. Measured in purchasing power parity, Slovenia allocated EUR6,477 per student compared to the EU average of EUR9,425. The country spent 23.2% of public tertiary expenditure on student aid, which was above the EU average of 16.7%.

There are four public and 35 private higher education institutions in Slovenia. Among the private institutions there are two universities, including the Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI), which is a network of universities with multiple faculties, and 33 ‘single’ higher education institutions reflecting a high level of fragmentation within private higher education.

A number of private institutions have had publicly funded courses (called programmes with concession) since the establishment of the private sector in the mid-1990s. Today there are 12 (35%) ‘single’ institutions and one university with concession, which translates into 28 publicly-funded study programmes.

Concessions were granted during two periods, in the mid-90s and in 2007-08 on the basis of two criteria: study areas where there are skills shortages (engineering, natural sciences, health care), and regions where there was a lack of provision.

Regions where higher education is not developed or even present, despite the small size of Slovenia, which is only 20,000 square kilometres, are disadvantaged compared to regions with university centres. Living expenses for students who do not study in their home town are significantly higher than for students living at home, EUR634 versus EUR292 respectively.

In Slovenia, the social dimension of higher education is very important in terms of improving access, raising the educational structure of a region’s population and creating jobs.

Numerous OECD studies have shown the major influences of higher education on the development of human capital and innovation, and the competitiveness of towns and regions with universities and other higher education institutions.

These are the key reasons why Slovenia allocates more public funds for student aid than the European Union average and why it publicly funds private higher education. In 2010 the country allocated EUR251.4 million to institutions for study activities, EUR10.4 million of which (4.1%) went to private institutions with concession.

Since 2003, when ‘single’ higher education institutions merged to become the third public university, which is an interesting example of the nationalisation of private higher education, Slovenia has witnessed a sustained growth of private provision.

This has been despite a decline in the number of students after 2005, when there were more than100,000 students, compared to just over 90,000 students in 2010.

Private institutions offer considerably fewer full-time jobs than public ones. The main reason is that only 36% of them have a concession, providing them with a greater stability of funding than tuition fees, which depend on annual student enrolment.

Another reason is a method of teaching in larger groups that is common in social sciences, business and administrative studies and law, the fields with the most students in private higher education.

The student-to-teacher and assistant ratio for full-time equivalent provision is significantly better in public (14.8) than private (26.9) higher education. It is especially unfavourable in institutions without concession (33.4). This raises a question about the quality of their teaching and research, as much education is carried out by contract teachers and assistants, in addition to which many private institutions do not conduct research.

Advantages of private higher education

One of the key advantages of private higher education in Slovenia is that the ‘interest’ of founders of institutions is much more pronounced and present than in public institutions. This is reflected in management where individuals in leading positions such as rectors, deans and directors are often not elected but appointed.

Management of public higher education is characterised by a dominant role for teachers who are not qualified for management. Its other feature is an inappropriate composition of management boards in which founders and representatives of employers have much too little influence.

Mainly due to different (better) management, private higher education (both foreign and Slovenian) is more flexible and responsive and usually also more cost-effective. This is also reflected in the number of employees in professional and support services.

In public higher education there are nearly 24 students per member of non-teaching staff compared to as many as 36 students in private higher education.

This is not only due to fewer support activities in private institutions but also to a large duplication of staff at public universities in, for example, accounting, human resource and other departments at the level of faculties, academies and rectorates. This results in non-teaching staff representing 40.1% of all employees in public higher education compared to only about 22% in the private sector.

The 1.6 and 1.7 teachers (FTE) per member of non-teaching staff in public and private higher education with concession respectively is certainly not enough considering that non-teaching staff in Slovenian institutions generate much less revenue than at foreign universities, which as a result have much more diverse revenues and are therefore less dependent on public funds than our institutions.

Vision for private higher education

By 2020 the number of 19-year-olds in Slovenia will drop to just over 19,000 compared to more than 23,000 in 2010 and more than 29,000 in 2000. In this context, the key challenge is how to improve the reputation of private higher education institutions and thus increase the interest among students in enrolling in their study programmes.

This can be achieved by:

  • Strengthening the human resource structure, which is not integrated in the public sector and therefore has a better wage policy.
  • Promoting the diversity of study programmes and attracting groups of people not targeted by public higher education.
  • Emphasising the quality of education and introducing online studies.
  • Enhancing research and international cooperation.
  • Joining single institutions into universities that are organised differently than public universities and have dynamic management with a clear vision and plenty of energy.

    Integration is the future

    Private higher education contributes to a more dynamic Slovenian higher education area, brings much-needed competition and balances the dominance of public higher education, which has many advantages and privileges in accessing public funds for education and research.

    Concessions through which a number of private institutions are publicly funded have an important positive role to play not only for the institutions, their employees and students but also for the entire higher education sector.

    This is demonstrated in a greater similarity between public institutions and private institutions with concession on the one hand, and private institutions without concession on the other.

    The state must provide a framework and mechanisms to:

  • Encourage the development of public and private higher education in accordance with European Union and national targets.
  • Encourage the greatest possible quality and accessibility of higher education for all those interested.
  • Supervise higher education activities and thus contribute to its greater effectiveness, efficiency and transparency.

    Higher education should do its best to follow the OECD recommendation that its future lies in a reliable connection between the public and private sector, and that distrust and competition between them should be replaced by mutual trust and cooperation.

    Only then will higher education be able to provide access to quality education and contribute to the development of society.

    * Dušan Lesjak is a higher eduction researcher at the International School for Social and Business Studies in Celje, Slovenia.
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