EUROPE: Tired pioneers in Eastern and Central Europe

The common characteristic of private universities in Central and Eastern Europe is that none of them existed 20 years ago. The 'private revolution' in this part of the world started after the dissolution of the Soviet block and the fall of communism in 1989. The ossified structures of centrally managed higher education systems were unable to react to the new educational needs of emerging market economies.

There was a great demand for new type of studies such as business and management, marketing and promotion. The new states were unable to deal with the growing demand for tertiary education, massification and the democratisation of education. Instead, the demand was met by private institutions.

"The emergence of the private higher education was one of the marking points of the fall of ideological dogmas in teaching and certain academic disciplines as well as widely-interpreted academic freedoms," said Jan Sadlak, president of IREG, the Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, and former director of the UNESCO-European Centre for Higher Education.

Legislation passed in most Central and Eastern European countries in the early 1990s opened the way for private higher education, and the private sector experienced sudden growth across the region.

In some countries, such as Russia, higher education institutions were often created by privatising the existing facilities of state-run institutions. But in most cases these were completely new institutions without their own infrastructure and academic staff.

Professors with vision backed by experience gained abroad opened their own higher education institutions, to realise their ideas of modern, entrepreneurial and innovative higher education institutions.

"Founding private higher education establishments was often an expression of intellectual entrepreneurialism among academics themselves," Jan Sadlak explained. "Quite significant numbers of newly founded private higher education establishments coined their names as 'European', 'American' or 'international', giving themselves an aura of openness and self-proclaimed prestige."

Within a short time the number of private institutions grew rapidly across the entire region. The initial explosive growth was followed by a decade of relative stability.

In Poland and Romania, in the first five years, private higher education institutions represented 25% of student enrolments. In Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia the proportion reached 12%, as revealed in the 2007 report Private Higher Education in Post-Communist Europe. In search of legitimacy.

The growth of private private higher education sectors across post-communist countries was powerful but not even. Different national patterns of growth were influenced by historically high enrolments rates, the speed of reforms, changing social values and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

In Turkmenistan there are very few private institutions, and in Slovakia the sector has not achieved real importance in the higher education system, with its share remaining 4% to 5% of the total education market.

On the other hand in Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary non-public university students make up around 15% of the total number of students and in Estonia, Poland and Romania the private sector encompassed in the end around a third of all students.

The most spectacular increase in the number of private institutions has been in Poland. In first 15 years, 350 providers were established. Currently 32% of all students in Poland, or 580 000, are enrolled in 320 private higher education institutions.

The most dynamic growth in student numbers in private colleges and universities has been reported in the Czech Republic. In 2000, 2,000 students attended these institutions while in 2010 their number soared to more than 57,000, or 14% of all students.

Today, some 30% of students across Central and Eastern Europe use private higher education, which has become a legitimate part of higher education systems and overall can be seen as 'success story'. For the past 20 years, private higher education in the region has been developing, searching for a rightful place in the education system and in the education market; it has been building trust and prestige.

"Compared with the state sector, Russian private higher education institutions were generally viewed as more receptive to students, more responsive to market demands, more flexible in their course offerings, and often with more innovative instructional methods," said Vladimir Zernov, chairman of the committee of the Association of Non-state Higher Educational Establishments in Russia and rector of the Russian New University.

New challenges

But now, after two decades of successful existence, the sector faces new challenges.

The list of needs is long and includes: recruitment and development of academic staff; enhancement of study programme diversity; an increased role for research; more attention to quality assurance and challenges of quality culture; and more transparent governance.

The most pressing issue seems to be coping with the consequences of demographic trends, which are resulting in a substantial decline in secondary school-leavers across the region.

"For private education, the demographic crisis could lead to a significant loss of stability for higher education establishments, leading to shutting down of their representatives and difficulty in supporting branches," said Zernov about Russia.

The situation is similar in the Ukraine, according to Taras Finikov, president of the International Foundation for Educational Policy Research and former vice-minister of education and science of Ukraine.

"Due to the unfavourable demographic situation there will not be enough students to study in private higher education institutions in the next six to seven years. It will lead to a decrease in the number of private institutions in the next few years. First the number of small and mid-sized private institutions offering highly specialised fields will drop.

According to predictions, the number of private universities in the Ukraine will go down to about 20 to 25 of the biggest, market-oriented institutions located in academic centres. Currently there are 108 private higher education institutions.

"In order to survive they have to ensure high quality and uniqueness of the study programme, a wide range of specialisations and professional development programmes," Finikov added.

In Poland, the number of 19-year-olds will continue to decrease every year until 2020, and will be half the number of the peak year, 2002. The most pessimistic predictions foretell the disappearance from the educational map of up to 75% of private universities in the coming few years.

Private establishments cannot count on the support of the state. This is certain. The uneven competition conditions between state and private higher education systems definitely put the latter at a disadvantage, and is a serious problem for private institutions.

"In Russia no equal relations between higher education establishments of different forms of incorporation were achieved. In most cases, equality of educational sectors is of a declarative nature," said Zernov.

"All state-owned higher education establishments have indisputable advantages and preferences over the non-state sector; no truly competitive environment was created. The ministry of education and science in Russia supports only its subordinate state higher education establishments, lobbying the interests of only one part of educational system, meanwhile neglecting non-state higher education establishments."

In Poland the rectors of non-state higher education institutions also protest against clear discrimination of their sector by the state. They have demand that their full-time students be funded from the state budget.

The situation is no better in the Ukraine where, as Jospeh Stetar and Oleksiy Panych wrote in The Rising Role and Relevance of Private Higher Education in Europe: "The access of Ukrainian private higher education institutions and students to public sources of funding is next to zero. In some instances, such access has been denied in practice even if it is openly stipulated in the existing law.

Ukrain's Taras Finikov predicted that the government would continue its "protectionist policy towards the public sector. Only the improvement of the demographic situation will give the private higher education sector a real chance for further development. It is expected in Ukraine in 2018."

In Lithuania, the situation seems more positive. Under reforms started in 2009, the state finances some students at private institutions. "This is the 'money follows student' type of mechanism," said Professor Dr Saulius Spurga, chancellor of Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius.

The future

What future awaits Eastern and Central European private higher education?

The conclusions reached during discussions among rectors at a September conference in Warsaw, titled "Private Higher Education and its Contribution to Enhancement of Innovation Potential of Europe in the Global Competitive Environment", showed that private higher education institutions in Central and Eastern Europe are fully aware of the challenges.

First, they realise that in order to survive they must constantly raise the quality of research and teaching, and strive to obtain international accreditation. The private universities that have invested in quality buildings and have grown good staff, will manage through this hard period, said Ilie Rotariu, a professor at Lucjan Blaga University in Sibiu, Romania.

Private universities also know that they must rationalise costs, and that universities with too few students cannot survive. A process of consolidation has been underway for some time, although it is not very visible yet.

Bigger and stronger institutions have been taking over the ownership of smaller ones, although at least formally allowing them to maintain their identity and some independence. The 'invisible consolidation' provides a chance of avoiding bankruptcies and closures during the unfavourable demographic situation.

The future of the private sector seems to quite positive for those universities able to cooperate and merge into bigger institutions, said Sholpan Kalanova, president of the Independent Kazakhstan Quality Assurance Agency in Education.

Russia's Zernov is also optimistic. Although he believes predictions of many private institutions experiencing problems in their development, he said, "I am still convinced that the non-state sector of education, after crisis, will be more able to meet competition and will increase it positive influence on the development of national education".

Increasingly, non-state universities have been focusing on internationalisation, hoping to compensate for the dropping numbers of local students with an inflow of international students.

Polish private universities are already registering much higher growth of numbers of international students than the state-run institutions. Some are also creating branch campuses abroad and foreign programmes.

Last but not least, the discussion keeps focusing on lack of honest competition between the state and private sector. And this does not mean unfair privilege; just equal access to public resources for teaching and research.

Central and Eastern European private universities are on the threshold of a generational change. After 20 years of intensive activity their first rectors, presidents and founders are ready to leave for well-deserved retirement. They are satisfied, but tired.

The future of the sector and the method of tackling demographic challenges will depend on their successors. Unlike the state university model popular in this part of Europe, where professors without managerial experience are elected to top positions, private institutions will likely select dynamic managers with a vision and energy.

And the fresh blood will be sorely needed.

* Bianka Siwinska is editor-in-chief of Poland's higher education magazine Perspektywy, a publication of the Perspektywy Education Foundation.

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