January 17, 2008

If Universities Were Companies...

I've missed out on the news over the last few days, so driving home tonight I was wondering whether any decisions had been taken about the possible nationalisation of the Northern Rock Bank, and considering what the government response would be if a university was in immediate danger of going under?

(The OU is currently looking at an "ELQ funding gap", in which the OU is set to lose out on a significant chunk of funding council fee income from adult students (lifelong learners...) taking conversion or second degrees, but I don't think things are that bad yet...! So this is just a "what if...";-)

Flipping the 'nationalisation of the Northern Rock' idea round, I wondered whether one radical solution might be the privatisation, or buyout, of a university by a public or private company, or private equity? Private capital already has a stake in the UK educational system, not only through "public schools" (i.e. private, fee-paying schools) but also through the Schools Private Finance Initiative.

And what sort of organisation would want to add a university to their portfolio anyway?

Last year, BBC Worldwide bought out travel publisher Lonely Planet - but I can't really imagine any good reasons why they would want to take over a traditional university...

Or would it make sense for an educational publisher to consider making a play?

Last year, Pearson bought eCollege, a course management/distance learning service provider, presumably as a conduit for pushing their content to academic users in the US HE sector. But would there be any advantage in them adding a traditional university to their portfolio? (I can see how it could make sense for them to add a distance learning provider, maybe?)

Nature Publishing Group may be doing all sorts of innovative things in scientific publishing, but I couldn't really see them wanting to buy up a university, splitting off the research arm and selling the teaching part on!

Hmm - would it make sense for someone like Qinetiq to do that, though, absorb what bits of the research they can and use the teaching wing as competition to RMCS?! ;-)

How about a conference centre provider? Many universities offer conferencing facilities of course, but how about if the tables turned and the campus was primarily for conferencing with student services as the secondary funding stream. (Same for property rental - particularly if the property company did a deal with someone who needed access to cheap undergrad labour! It could almost become like a modern day academic factory town!)

Having got the idea of a university being "just another company",  my mind then started wandering around the idea of universities buying up companies to further their aims. Certainly, many universities support science and innovation parks, spin-off start-ups to exploit IPR created research, and provide commercial consultancy services, but how many of them actually buy up other companies (in the UK at least)?

Again, thinking back to the Beeb Worldwide and Lonely Planet (a 'news and culture tourism' play, maybe?!;-), what sort of fit - or reason - might there be for a corporate wing of a university to start taking over "real", already established companies?

I suspect that many university presses have little to do with the parent university any more, so I guess that a university taking over a publisher would make little sense (even setting aside the fact that the turnover of individual universities is dwarfed by that of the large publishers).

But whilst I can't really imagine a web company wanting to buy up a university, would it make sense for a university with global online learning aspirations to consider buying up a web company?

Maybe... but what sort of property would make sense? A social network? A content sharing site? An application provider? A web service platform of some sort? Wikipedia?!

Again last year, Blackboard acquired Web CT. But what would it have meant if a university had bought them out (or equally, if a university had bought out eCollege?)

Ho hum - the boat's getting in, so time to sign off for now and then post this when I get back home...

[Posted 10 hours later...]

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Posted by ajh59 at January 17, 2008 10:40 AM

Argh! No! Not PFI please - http://www.varndean.co.uk/news/ex010803.html - just one of many stories.
The Pearson takeover of Edexcel, one of the big three exam boards has not been a happy experience either - most exams officers around here are in revolt and pushing for a total boycott.

Posted by: Kate at January 17, 2008 12:08 PM

Sorry Tony, yOU're on your own. The government "had to" protect Northern Rock or face loss of confidence in the banking system as a whole. If one (or a few) universities were to collapse, would the whole HE sector collapse? No...
It's January, and there's a cold wind blowing.

Posted by: AJCann at January 17, 2008 04:31 PM