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Private providers no longer the underdogs of higher education

Opinion

Private providers have always been the underdogs of higher education – the new kids on the block, lacking the history and perceived prestige of their university counterparts – but new data shows there’s more to the story, writes Paul Wappett.

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The recently released student experience and graduate satisfaction survey results from QILT (The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching) indicate that private providers in Australia are outperforming public universities in the areas that matter most to students.

Recently, the Council of Private Higher Education Inc. (COPHE) reported that, in the undergraduate space across all Australian universities and higher education providers, private institutions scored 23 of the top 25 QILT rankings for overall quality, as well as 24 of the top 25 for student support.

And in the South Australian postgraduate education market, private providers are setting the student satisfaction benchmark. These aren’t rankings determined by third-party organisations or even regulators: they reflect the views, experiences and sentiments of the people who matter most – students and graduates.

Today, around 9 per cent of Australian higher education students are enrolled with private providers – a percentage that has been growing steadily. As private providers aren’t bound to any longstanding traditions or dated methods of teaching, they’ve been able to move with what students want and need from their education and what employers require. As a result, they’re leading the sector in delivering practical and accessible education in an innovative way.

At my organisation, AIB, this has meant providing a fully digital learning journey for working adults who want to study when, where and how it suits them. If you choose to study with a provider who specialises in online education, you won’t find videos of hour-long lectures that have been delivered on-campus and repurposed on a website (as many universities do for their “online” programs). Instead, content is curated and modularised for online learning, with a greater focus on the learning journey and the applicability of that learning.

Private higher education providers must deliver real, relevant career outcomes for their students in order to be successful. We don’t receive the taxpayer support that universities receive in the form of subsidies from the Federal Government. Those subsidies allow public universities to offer degrees at a price lower than they could otherwise sustain. As a private provider, this holds us highly accountable to our students and drives us to be innovative and laser-focused on delivering the things that students actually value. Our sole source of income is from enrolments, so ensuring that the study experience is exemplary and that graduates go on to achieve their career goals and become advocates of the institution is paramount.

Despite this commitment to student outcomes and the recent validation of that by QILT, there still seems to be misconceptions about private higher education. Interestingly though, those biases don’t translate across all education levels, with the perceptions of public and private from high school to higher education differing greatly. Likely based on student academic outcomes and pathways to further education, the Australian public associate prestige and quality with private high schools. But when it comes to higher education, they tend to ascribe prestige and quality to public universities.

Why is that? Is it because we just accept the notion that those universities that have been around for a long time must necessarily be high quality? Is it that we don’t trust a profit motive in higher education, while being supportive of it (or at least agnostic to it) in other industry sectors? Is it that some private providers who rorted the poorly-designed VET FEE-HELP scheme a few years back have ruined it for others?

Regardless of the root of the notion, it ultimately leads to a deeper question: how should higher education institutions be assessed?

We don’t believe that the number of lecture halls or a provider’s research portfolio reflects a quality education. What does? It’s the career outcomes achieved by graduates and the depth of useful knowledge and skills acquired through the degree that helped them get there.

The QILT data makes it clear that when scored on those criteria – as opposed to other criteria such as research outputs – students believe that private providers are doing a better job than their public university counterparts.

Paul Wappett is CEO of the Australian Institute of Business.

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