Center for Public Policy Studies

Professor Kwiek in “Higher Education”: “De-privatization in higher education: a conceptual approach” just published

June, 2017

Professor Marek Kwiek has just published a paper “De-privatization in higher education: a conceptual approach” in Higher Education (Volume 74, Issue 2, pp 259–281).


This paper seeks to conceptualize the processes of de-privatization in higher education. Trends of de-privatization (and contraction in enrolments) are highly interesting because they go against global trends of privatization (and educational expansion). De-privatization means a decreasing role for the private component in the changing public–private dynamics. The paper studies its two dimensions (funding and provision) and distinguishes between seven potential empirical organizational/geographical levels of analysis. Empirically, the paper draws from data from Central Europe. The traditional dichotomous pairing of the public and the private is shown to still be useful in specific empirical contexts, despite it becoming blurred globally. Major approaches to privatization in higher education over the last two decades are rethought and redirected toward de-privatization. An empirically informed notion of de-privatization is being developed and its usefulness is briefly tested.

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Selected ideas include the following:

Surprisingly, in some parts of post-communist Europe (referred to here as “the region”), global assumptions about the ever-growing demand for higher education and the constant growth in enrolments—combined with assumptions about the increasing pressure to privatize higher education mostly for financial reasons (Priest et al. 2006: 7; Johnstone 2000: 1; Sanyal and Johnstone 2011: 160; Thornton 2012: 12-13)—seem not to hold. On the contrary, new public–private dynamics at work in such countries as Poland, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria tend to suggest opposite processes (Curaj et al. 2015; OECD 2015): Privatization is not taken for granted any more, and college-age cohorts are declining for demographic reasons, as is the overall demand for higher education. There are more vacancies than candidates, in both public and private sectors. Consequently, the pressure to privatize the public sector and to expand the private sector is as low as never before in the post-1989 period.

Thus, higher education in parts of post-communist Europe is moving against two major global trends of private sector growth and cost-sharing (defined as the worldwide trend of educational costs being shifted “from a dominant reliance on governments to an increasing reliance on parents and students,” Sanyal and Johnstone 2011: 160). The two trends are globally the weakest in Continental Europe (see Heller and Callender 2013) which is “one of the last hold-outs of free higher education” (Marcucci 2013: 19), and even weaker in the region. While privatization in an American context means “the substitution of tuition fee income for state support” and “the move toward more reliance on private funding for ‘public’ higher education” (Zusman 1999: 119), de-privatization as explored in this paper would mean exactly the opposite: the substitution of state support for tuition fee income and the move toward more reliance on public funding for public higher education (combined with private sector decline). These regional countertrends demand greater conceptual and empirical attention.

De-privatization processes—in terms of funding—refer to proportionally decreasing private funding in higher education, or its decreasing privateness, over time, and privatization processes refer to proportionally increasing private funding, or its increasing privateness, over time. A proportional approach to de-privatization (i.e., percentages of public and private finance) makes it easier to identify the direction of ongoing changes at various levels of analysis. In post-communist Europe, which empirically informs this paper, the dynamics have clearly been changing toward more publicness and less privateness in the last decade.

Privatization as a social science concept is used in broad and narrow senses. Theoretical and empirical research on privatization in a broad sense, developed mostly within political economy, political sciences and economics, has been historically focused on two parts of the world: the USA (as well as the United Kingdom, see Le Grande and Robinson 1984; Walker 1984; Starr 1989; Feigenbaum et al. 1998) and European transition post-communist countries (see Spulber 1997; Nelson et al. 1997). Conceptualizations of privatization in higher education though, that is privatization in a narrow sense, refer mostly to the USA (Johnstone 2000; Priest and St John 2006; Morphew and Eckel 2009; Fryar 2012), with a limited number of publications on other parts of the globe (such as Poland, Australia, China, and selected other Asian and African countries, see Marginson 1997b; Kwiek 2016a; Painter and Mok 2008; Mok 2011; and Wang 2014).

Narrowly defined, privatization means denationalization and refers to the transfer to private ownership of public assets; including sales of public land, infrastructure and enterprises (see Starr 1989; Spulber 1997; Belfield and Levin 2002). Privatization has different meanings at three levels: an “idea,” “theory and rhetoric,” and “political practice” (Starr 1989: 15); at the level of political practice, privatization is a fundamental “reordering of claims in society” and in its extreme forms—known from post-communist transition economies in the 1990s—an instrument of “class politics” (Starr 1989: 42–43). The links between privatization in its broad and narrow senses are close (Whitty and Power 2000; Kaplan 2009; Priest and St John 2006). The frontiers between public and private sectors are “not always easy to define or clear-cut” (Spulber 1997: 101). The terms “public” and “private” are politically crucial: They sum up a “whole structure of rules and expectations about the proper conduct and limits of the state” (Starr 1989: 42).

There is a lack of conceptual clarity in theorizing about privatization in higher education (Fryar 2012: 521), and the precise definition of the term remains “elusive” (Ikenberry 2009: 2). Consequently, privatization means “many things” (Altbach et al. 2010: 73) and it is a “nuanced phenomenon” (Eckel and Morphew 2009: 183). It has “neither an unequivocal definition nor absolute or delimited characteristics” (Gómez and Ordorika 2012: 219). Most common among discussions of privatization are its definition as the decline in state support for higher education (Teixeira 2012). The privatization theme has been extensively treated in the last two decades. For instance, privatization of public universities can be viewed as the decentralization of governmental control (Eckel and Morphew 2009: 190–191); shifts in public opinion about the value of higher education, as studied through a median voter model (Toutkoushian 2009: 74–75); decreases in public funding and increases in entrepreneurial activities within institutions (Ikenberry 2009: 5), and increased reliance on market mechanisms to govern higher education (McLendon and Mokher 2009: 25–26) or increases in competition for students and resources (Kaplan 2009: 128)—as Fryar (2012: 523) shows taking the single volume on “privatizing the public university” in an American context as an example (see Morphew and Eckel 2009). The de-privatization theme seems to have been heavily under-researched: It has been mentioned in passing only in several isolated instances (e.g., Painter and Mok 2008; Mok 2011).

Despite accounts in which the public and the private are increasingly viewed as “blurred” (both American, see Geiger 2007; Altbach et al. 2010; Sanyal and Johnstone 2011; and European, see Enders and Jongbloed 2007), in the region, a still sharp divide between public and private institutions, publicly supported and privately supported students, public sector students and private sector students, as well as between public and private sources of funding—is analytically useful. Despite the fact that in other parts of the world these tools may no longer be useful. The core of the post-1989 transformations from the public–private perspective was the emergence of the privates and the appearance of fee-paying students in the public sector.

I am using in this paper the two contrasted dimensions of the private (privateness) and the public (publicness) in higher education, following Levy in his studies on the private sector. He assumes that “the private–public distinction matters” (Levy 1986: 293) and that it is “strong” (Levy 2013: 3). In practical terms,

we count private and public by their juridical designation, which generally overlaps ownership: if an institution is legally public we count it (and its enrolment) as public, regardless of its degree of “privateness” in finance or administration (Levy 2013: 3).

Privatization and de-privatization are much more clear-cut in the region where there are clear public/private distinctions in ownership and resourcing: privates receive almost exclusively private funding (although their students are entitled to receive state-subsidized loans), and publics receive predominantly public funding (and are entitled to charge fees in most cases to “part-time” or “second-track” or “out of quota” students). In financing, public sectors in the region are still “truly public” and private sectors are “truly private” (as Levy referred to his Latin American cases, 1986: 293). Therefore, while “just dividing higher education into a ‘public sector’ and a ‘private sector’ is too simple” (Calhoun 2011: 3), in the region, it is much simpler due to short history of cost-sharing and clear-cut characteristics of the private sector. Globally, though, there are such ongoing nuanced processes as a decline in “privateness in private institutions” and the rising “privateness in public institutions” (Levy 2013: 16)—which mean, in terms of funding, more public (direct or indirect) subsidies in the former and more income from fees in the latter.

A set of traditionally distinctive concepts of “public” and “private” still works well in the region: It enables a simplified conceptual apparatus to operationalize and measure de-privatization. In this part of Europe, as in Levy’s (2008: 46) general observation, “for the most part, the public sector remains quite public whereas private institutions are privately financed and have governance and accountability profiles consistent with their funding and purpose.” While privatization was a powerful conceptual tool to comprehend systemic changes in the 1990s (see Kwiek 2012), de-privatization may be a useful tool to comprehend recent and future changes. At the same time—changing the terrain from public and private resources and ownership to public and private outcomes and benefits from higher education—the public sector in the region is increasingly being reconceptualized as producing private outcomes, and the private sector increasingly attempts to reconceptualize itself as producing public outcomes. Of the two parallel processes, the former is much more advanced. In terms of outcomes, as Marginson (2007: 323) argues, national higher education systems produce “a mix of public and private goods” which is “highly variable and policy sensitive.”

Higher education research and policy literature over the last few decades has been focused on the growing worldwide demand: on ever increasing student numbers—and how to finance expanding systems (Johnstone and Marcucci 2010; Altbach et al. 2010). Growth and expansion were the words (Heller and Callender 2013; Marcucci 2013)—decline and contraction were not. A common global assumption has been “the massive quantitative expansion” and “the huge increases in projected enrolments,” both calling for “massive and continuing increases in revenues” (Sanyal and Johnstone 2011: 159). Coping with “more students and less money” (Thornton 2012: 13) has been a global phenomenon. In the demographic context of formidable expansion—combined with political contexts of “permanent austerity” in public sector services and ideological contexts of New Public Management—privatization was the word. Privatization was thus viewed as a policy mechanism to meet the goal of increasing access in expanding systems (Priest and St John 2006: 248).

Privatization has become a necessity because of “budgetary problems created by massification with simultaneous reductions in public investment” (Altbach et al. 2010: 82). However, while across the non-European Western world and the developing world there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students combined with the limitations of the public purse, the region seems unaffected by these global trends and—consequently—by Thornton’s “privatizing imperatives” (2012) prevalent in public universities across the Anglophone world (for cross-national quantitative studies of the academic profession in 11 European systems, see Kwiek 2015c2016c, on the internationalization of research and on European research elites, respectively).

The critical issue is demographics. The privatization-demographics and de-privatization-demographics links are key: privatization seems to be on the rise in expanding systems (that is, almost everywhere globally in the 2010s) with increasing demographics; but it might be in reverse in contracting systems with heavily declining demographics (that is, in Central and Eastern Europe). The vast majority of higher education research and policy literature refers to expansion and related rising financial commitments; however, there are also systematically contracting systems, with negative growth and, consequently, decreasing commitments: namely the region in question, the fastest aging societies in Europe.

Private higher education gets hit hard by slowing demand, and the greatest vulnerability is in the demand-absorbing subsector (Levy 2013: 6) that dominates the sector in the region. Also, the rationales for cost-sharing are different for contracting systems than for—as traditionally developed to fit—expanding systems. The states in the region are able to increase per student funding without increasing total funding—as the number of students systematically decreases. Levy draws a useful distinction between a “raw” decline private higher education in absolute numbers and a “proportional” decline—including where “the decline is fundamentally a function of large-scale fresh public growth” (Levy 2013: 14). The region represents both types of decline. Following Belfield and Levin’s (2002: 29) argument that the first factor to explain privatization in education is as simple as “many parents want it,” I argue that de-privatization occurs because many parents/students no longer “want it” (as much as they did one or two decades ago).

In the region, two forms of privatization occurred: the growing demand in the expansion period was to be met by both internal privatization of the public sector and external privatization through new private providers (see Kwiek 2010 for the distinction). Analogously, internal de-privatization is linked to ever-growing public funding in the public sector and an ever-growing share of publicly funded (tuition-free) students in this sector. Behind external de-privatization—or the gradual private sector decline in the region—there are four interrelated driving forces: (1) declining demographics: the age cohorts for the standard age of studying have been declining for a decade, and are expected to do so in the future; (2) the demand-absorbing character of the private sector: it was the first to appear, the largest to emerge, and it is currently having the hardest time to survive; (3) the rigidity of emergent hierarchies of prestige: principal private goods provided by higher education are “positional goods” (Marginson 1997a: 38–46; Marginson 2007: 198–201) and demand-absorbing private institutions in the region allocate on average the lowest value status goods; and (4) the tuition-free character of the competing public sector: the fully fee-based private sector competes with basically tuition-free public sector. The combination of the four above driving forces endangers the very existence of private sectors in the region, making external de-privatization a globally interesting phenomenon.

The organization of higher education can be represented in terms of the two-dimensional relationship between the sources of funding and provision (see Fig. 1 below). The public provision of higher education (or enrolments) is shown in Cells 1/2, and private provision in Cells 3/4; public funding is shown in Cells 1/3, and private funding is shown in Cells 2/4. Privately provided higher education competes with that which is publicly provided wherever both occur in the system.

Fig. 1. Modes of higher education provision and funding revised from Whitty and Power (2000)

There are four theoretically pure cases: public provision and public funding (Cell 1), public provision and private funding (Cell 2), private provision and public funding (Cell 3), and private provision and private funding (Cell 4). A pure model of publicly funded and publicly provided higher education is located in Cell 1; and a pure model of privately funded and privately provided higher education is located in Cell 4. Privatization in higher education is, as Whitty and Power (2000: 94) describe it in terms of welfare services in general, “a multi-faceted set of processes rather than a straightforward movement out of Cell 1 into Cell 4.” Similarly, de-privatization is not a straightforward movement out of Cell 4 into Cell 1. Each national system can be located within the four cells over time. Additionally, movements within cells (i.e., quantitative differences) and among cells (i.e., qualitative differences) over time can be shown. Thus de-privatization along the funding dimension is either a quantitative change within Cell 2 toward public, or a qualitative change from Cell 2 to Cell 1 (in the public sector). De-privatization along the provision dimension is either a quantitative change within Cell 3 toward public, or a qualitative change from Cell 3 to Cell 1 (assuming that “public” means “with the majority of public-sector students” and “private” means “with the majority of private-sector students”). By definition, a “pure” Cell 1 cannot be de-privatized (and a “pure” Cell 4 cannot be privatized).

For empirical purposes, both funding and provision dimensions can be better calibrated to capture the changing realities at any level over time using deciles (or percentiles). An empirical study of de-privatization makes sense if it is viewed as a process, or a difference in the location in the model between two times in the public/private dimension of funding and/or enrolments at one or more levels. For instance, a shift from a 40 % privately funded institution to a 20 % privately funded institution denotes de-privatization at an institutional level, as does a shift from 40 % private enrolments to 20 % private enrolments in an institution.

A two-dimensional relationship can be further developed to be used for multilevel analyses at different organizational/geographical levels. I suggest the following: Level 1 Individual faculty/department;   Level 2 Individual university; Level 3 National state/province; Level 4a Higher education sectors: public sector; Level 4b Higher education sectors: private sector; Level 5 National system (country); Level 6 Continent/political region; and Level 7 Global.

Consequently, the two dimensions (provision and funding) can be analyzed at seven organizational/geographical levels. There are complicated multi-faceted interrelations between the dimensions of funding and provision at different levels. The direction of changes over time at a lower level can be different from the aggregated direction of changes at a higher level. For instance, the aggregated direction of changes at Level 2 (individual university) over time can differ from changes in its various components at Level 1 (individual faculty/department). While the university as a whole can be privatizing, selected faculties/departments may be de-privatizing, or the other way round, as we show in fifth section. In a similar vein, while at an aggregated Level 5 (national system/country), higher education can be de-privatizing, there may be selected public institutions which are actually privatizing, along funding, provision, or both dimensions. At each level, trends can be accompanied by countertrends (see Kwiek 2016afor a detailed study of Poland as a global countertrend).

The two extremes at a systemic level—(fully) public and (fully) private higher education—seem not to exist in pure forms in the OECD area or globally (among OECD member states only Greece is reported to have neither “government-dependent private” nor “independent private” institutions, OECD 2014: 413). De-privatization at any level means movement on the continuum in the direction of the (fully) public (and privatization, by analogy, means movement in the other direction).

From the perspective of funding, internal privatization and internal de-privatization occur in public sector institutions (with ever more or ever less, nominally and/or proportionally, private funding over time), and external privatization and external de-privatization occur in private sector institutions (with ever more or ever fewer private sector institutions and private sector funding from fees in the system over time). External de-privatization is not possible in systems in which the private sector (as defined by the OECD term: “independent private”) does not exist (e.g., in Belgium, Finland, Greece, the United Kingdom, Hungary and Sweden in Europe, and Canada outside Europe, OECD 2014: 413). And from the perspective of provision, internal privatization and internal de-privatization refer to public sector institutions, and external privatization and external de-privatization refer to private sector institutions. Consequently, external de-privatization is not possible in systems in which the private sector does not exist.

In this paper, several aims have been achieved: a new conceptual tool of de-privatization was developed for use in higher education research and policy, and it was briefly shown how to operationalize and measure it. Three previously separate strands of research (on privatization, private higher education, and cost-sharing) have been synthesized and explored as forming the global privatization agenda. The traditional dichotomous pairing of the public and the private has been shown to still be useful in specific empirical contexts, despite it becoming blurred globally. Major approaches to privatization in higher education over the last two decades have been rethought and redirected toward de-privatization.

The global processes of privatization and expansion in higher education have not been found to fit the ongoing demography-induced processes in post-communist systems in Central Europe very well. Instead of the conceptual pairing of expansion and privatization—the region has been found to be better served by the pairing of contraction and de-privatization. An empirically informed notion of de-privatization has been developed and its usefulness has been briefly tested in explaining the ongoing and expected shifts in higher education in the region.

The processes of de-privatization have been defined as the decreasing role of the private component in the changing public–private dynamics. But they can also be defined as the increasing role of the public component in it (and then termed re-publicization). De-privatization and re-publicization in higher education, being the two sides of the same coin, may serve to be used in different contexts. In the case of the region, de-privatization better serves the analytical purposes of understanding the impact of demography-driven contraction, if only for the historical reason that privatization used to be the key concept to understand expansion in the post-1989 period.

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