Willetts considers private takeovers of public institutions

There’s a worrying story in the Times Higher Education this week relating to the government’s willingness to consider private companies taking over public universities. David Willetts has apparently come under intense pressure from BBP (and other private education providers) to begin an opening up of the university system to private corporations and thus far he has said that such companies have a “significant role to play” in the government’s future plans for higher education. BBP have actually commissioned a report from law firm Eversheds which maps out the regulatory framework within which such takeovers could become viable, as well arguing that the inclusion of “external providers” are necessary to ensure a “a properly diverse sector”. There’s a UCU report on the issue available here.

Intriguingly this seems to precisely the same rhetoric utilised by News Corporation’s James Murdoch when attacking the BBC earlier this year. Murdoch argued that the scope of the BBC’s activities were “chilling” and that such state-sponsored journalism was a “threat to the plurality and independence” of news provision. The most obvious way of undercutting this discourse is to offer concrete accounts of how certain public goods are unstable or unlikely when provision is expected to take place through profit driven organizations. At the end of the day this notion of ‘diversity’ within a given sector makes little sense without some unstated assumption that this serves the public interest. In this sense the debate hinges on an empirical issue and one that needs to be comprehensively won if we are to avoid perhaps irreversible changes to higher education.


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