UK: Fears over privatisation

Britain's main lecturers' union is campaigning against the growing trend of universities forming partnerships with private education companies. The University and College Union is opposed to what it sees as the creeping privatisation of higher education. Several universities have links with companies such as INTO, Navitas and Kaplan for recruiting and teaching overseas students on preparatory programmes for English language and study skills, usually with a guarantee of progression to a degree course.

The union recently balloted members at Essex University, which is discussing with INTO the introduction of a pathway programme, and 90% voted against the venture. UCU members at the universities of Queen's Belfast, Glasgow Caledonian and Westminster have also joined in protests against involvement with INTO.

In a briefing paper, the union says it has serious concerns about the quality of courses, unrealistic demands on staff and, if lecturers are transferred from the university to the private company, they are paid at a lower rate.

Dr Michael Hughes, executive chair of the British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes, said some companies were "pretty aggressive" in their efforts to get a partnership with a university. His members were not consulted, deals were done in private and English language staff were presented with a fait accompli. Some lost their parity with faculty colleagues, including their pension rights.

"We are also concerned about quality of teaching as people are being brought in with less experience," Hughes said.

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary said: "We are not prepared to watch our universities risk hard won reputations and future financial health by signing capital and revenue over to what are in effect private sector property developers. We've seen the disastrous consequences of this kind of privatisation across the public sector and will fight it wherever it rears its head."

A spokeswoman for Essex University said discussions with INTO were at a very early stage: "Should we go forward, staff would be employed by the university on the usual terms and conditions. It would be a joint venture and this was made clear from the outset. We would retain control of academic standards," the spokeswoman added.

She pointed out the UCU ballot involved around 500 out of 2,300 university employees.

The UK is not the only target for private companies. Navitas, an Australian firm, is seeking partners in Canada but is meeting some stiff opposition. Staff in some departments at Manitoba University in Winnepeg are refusing to co-operate with an international college on university premises set up by Navitas and the university authorities.

At a recent conference in London on the theme of rethinking higher education, delegates heard of the growth of the private sector in higher education. For example, Liverpool University, a member of the Russell Group of 21 research-led institutions, has links with Laureate Education in the US. The two have jointly founded a university in China and produced a suite of masters programmes taught online.