Introduction to the theme

Public and Private dimensions of higher education

The role and position of higher education in the 21st century

At the beginning of the 21st century higher education remains dynamic. One of the most debated issues is the blurring of boundaries between what used to be clearly separated public and private spheres. Higher education in many countries has long been perceived as a responsibility of the state and therefore firmly controlled by the state. This situation has begun to change in the last 20 years. The ensuing discussion about to what extent higher education is and should be public or private goes much further than the definition of higher education as a public or a private good. Ultimately it is a fundamental discussion about the very role of higher education and the relation between higher education institutions and their environments.

The changing roles and positions are a consequence of several sweeping developments (both real and rhetorical), amongst which are such diverse trends as massification, globalisation, the rise of knowledge-based economies and the decline of the welfare state.

Many argue, for example, that massification in states with limited budgets has led to the rise of private providers of higher education. The globalisation of markets has led to an increasing number of for-profit universities operating world wide and of public universities operating as private businesses outside their countries. The rise of the knowledge economy has meant that higher education institutions are increasingly perceived as crucial for the competitiveness of national economies. As a consequence there is an increased pressure to intensify the relation between higher education and industry. The decline of the welfare state, and the ideology connected to it, means that higher education is increasingly perceived as a service, to be paid for by those who profit for it, meaning (next to society) also the individual student or company benefiting from respectively teaching or research.

This new situation with increasing numbers of private providers, public providers operating on global markets and intensifying relations between higher education and industries creates new challenges in terms of governance and management of higher education institutions and systems.