Demand means more opting to go private

25,000 students attend private colleges, which seek greater recognition

Ábout 25,000 students are enrolled in private colleges, many because they could not access their desired course in a state-funded institution

Ábout 25,000 students are enrolled in private colleges, many because they could not access their desired course in a state-funded institution


Last year, a new lobby group called the Independent Providers of Higher Education (IPHE) was assembled to put the case for 19 private colleges to the Government. A further 11 larger private colleges have been making representations to government through an organisation called HECA (Higher Education Colleges Association) since 1991. Why do these groups feel the need to have their interests represented alongside traditional universities? One issue unites both: a desire to bridge what they regard as an artificial gap between their colleges and state-funded higher level institutions.

The main issue is money. Students of private colleges such as Griffith College (HECA), Dublin Business School (HECA), Independent Colleges (IPHE) and Hibernia College (HECA) cannot avail of any state subsidies such as student grants or research funding. Once you enrol in a private college you are effectively cutting the apron strings.

The inference is that students who can pay fees for private higher education don’t need state help. However, it is estimated that over 25,000 students are currently enrolled in private colleges, many because they couldn’t access the courses that they wanted in a state-funded institution.

That figure represents about 5 per cent of the overall student population, but if Irish demographics and global market trends are anything to go by, private colleges are poised to increase their market share.

Surge in demand
This year 60,000 students sat the Junior Cert; 10,000 more than sat the Leaving Cert. There is an even bigger population surge working its way through the primary sector. The demand for college courses is on the way up, and private colleges are well-placed to expand into the space created by demographic shifts.

Pádraig Hourigan is managing director of Independent Colleges, a member of the IPHE. Hourigan believes that private colleges are now exercising a vital function in the country’s higher education infrastructure and that the time has come for the government to recognise this.

“The IPHE is arguing for a level playing field for higher education providers,” says Hourigan. “The money should follow the student as it does in some Scandinavian countries. It’s time for the department to tackle this issue as the gap between the two sectors is narrowing in many other respects.”

Hourigan points to cost as one area where the difference between public and private is now less acute. “The average cost of the courses here is €5,000 per annum. Compare that to the €2,500 student registration fee for state-funded institutions, which doesn’t represent the full cost to the State of funding a university student,” he says.

He also highlights the strict accreditation processes overseen by QQI, formerly HETAC, for programmes in institutions like his.

“Our primary validating body is HETAC, which has national and international cache,” he says. “More and more students are now availing of what we offer.”

Despite common perceptions, private colleges are not over reliant on the international education market for students. Approximately 10 per cent of Independent College students come from overseas, less than some public universities, according to Hourigan. He insists that the private colleges are centre stage in terms of Leaving Cert student choice now, and that the Government needs to start recognising the sector in the same way that students have.

The Conservative education minister David Willetts has made much of his plans to even out the system in the UK. In 2010 he made BPP College of Professional Studies the first private provider to be awarded the university college title for more than 30 years.

He has also tweaked the student funding system so that private and public students are on the same footing.

Here in Ireland, no such commitments have been made, but there has been a concession to the sector in the shape of the Springboard scheme which offers part-time courses up to masters degree level in areas of talent shortage. Private colleges were invited to participate in offering courses under Springboard, a government-funded initiative. It’s the first time private colleges here have been able to compete with public institutions for state funding.

According to the HEA, private colleges succeeded in securing around 40 per cent of the 6,000 Springboard places in the last funding round. It is expected that they will be equally successful when this year’s allocations are announced.

Enhanced status
The sector is hoping that new legislation in the pipeline will strengthen its case for enhanced status. Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) was established in 2012 under the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act. The new authority brings together four bodies that have both awarding and quality assurance responsibilities: FETAC, HETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) and the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB).

Ronan Fenelon, director of Griffith College, sees his institution moving into line with public higher education providers sooner rather than later, thanks to the powers that the new legislation will invest in QQI.

“Griffith is planning to apply to achieve ‘delegated authority’ status from QQI, once legislation is announced. Within the next decade we would hope to have achieved university status,” he says.

Mr Hourigan insists that private providers fulfil a role in higher education that the universities and Institutes of Technology do not currently fill.

“Our sector is nimble, we can react very quickly to emerging skills and industry needs and put courses in place far more quickly that the public institutions,” he says. He points to a the range of courses in the dispute resolution sector currently on offer by the college and also a new diploma programme, currently in the making at Independent Colleges, to provide training in the new personal insolvency legislation announced in May.

“Upon approval, we expect to have that programme up and running by September, to provide accreditation for the new Personal Insolvency Practitioners who will be required to negotiate between their clients and financial institutions,” he says. “That kind of responsiveness to market demands is one of the key attributes of an institution such as ours.”

That may be so, but there are good reasons why universities and Institutes of Technology take longer to put courses in place. Academic staff in the university and ITs are protected within unions and perform a considerable research function as part of their job spec. If the private colleges want equity in terms of funding, shouldn’t they be required to take on some of the responsibilities of the traditional institutions?

Levelling the playing field works both ways, and private colleges’ offerings are patently not the same as traditional higher level institutions in many areas. Like the public bus service, universities go to places that are not always commercially viable, but that offer a value beyond their financial return. One thing can be said with certainty, however. The demand for college places is not being met by public institutions and private colleges are part of the solution.

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