Flow of Ideas
Creeping Privatisation in Higher Education?

Glenn Rikowski, London, 4th April 2006

An article in today’s Morning Star by Karl Stewart (2006) highlights disturbing events at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle regarding a private company making small, but significant, inroads into teaching provision there. The significance of the Northumbria case is that is an opening shot from higher education (HE) management in attempts to bring in private sector providers for frontline teaching services. Stewart reports that:

“Around 600 Northumbria University lecturers will walk out on strike today at management plans to attack jobs, terms and conditions of employment and allow privateers to run courses. The dispute centres around the restructuring of the English language centre (ELC) at the university’s Newcastle campus where according to academic union NATFHE, 28 staff have been made redundant and forced to compete for 18 new posts.”

Furthermore, adds Stewart:

“NATFHE has also alleged that, at the same time as implementing these measures, the university is also planning to bring in a private organisation to teach several courses already provided by the ELC. University governors are to be asked later this month to approve a deal with Study Group International, part of the Daily Mail Group, to set up an operate the Northumbria University International Study Centre on university premises, for an agreed rental.”

Study Group International “provides educational programs to students around the world” according to its web site (DMG, und) marketing spiel. Study Group International is the international arm of Study Group, which has its headquarters in Brighton, UK and with employees in the US and Australia as well as in the UK. The Daily Mail Group (DMG) subsidiary, DMG Information, invested in Study Group from 1996 and bought it out completely in 1999 (Ibid.).

Stewart (2006) reports that the chair of Northumbria University’s NATFHE branch, Martin Levy, has indicated that the insertion of Study Group International into the operations of the ELC constitutes: “the first step to privatisation of our education provision”. The university, on the other hand, offered an extremely weedy and unconvincing explanation of what it was trying to do. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Peter Slee claimed that the restructuring was all part of a plan to separate “degree-level English courses from those aimed at bringing foreign students’ English language skills up to the standard required for study” (Stewart, 2006). Slee indicated that Study Group International would be running only “non-degree level” foundation courses (Ibid.). But this neatly side-skips the issue that previously, staff employed by the university were running these courses and now some of these were being replaced (via redundancy and ‘restructuring’) with staff from Study Group International. Of course, there is also the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument – that if this is allowed to happen then moves to farm out more other academic departments to private sector operators is made easier on the back of this precedent.

Private English language schools all over the country (and beyond) must be watching this dispute with watering mouths. Study Group brought off another significant coup just before Christmas when they struck up a deal with the University of Sussex, UK, to provide foundation courses in English. The Group announced in a December 2005 press release that:

“We are delighted to announce that the University of Sussex has invited Study Group to establish an on-campus International Study Centre, as part of their international development strategy” (StudyGroup, 2005, p.1).

In the same press release, the development got enthusiastic backing from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alasdair Smith and the Managing Director of Study Group, Andrew Thick, stated that:

“We are delighted to have been invited by the University of Sussex to join them in creating this new International Study Centre” (StudyGroup, 2005, p.2).

So, ‘everyone’s a winner’, it seems.

Study Group recently signed an agreement with the Pacific Lutheran University which established it as the “exclusive provider of English language courses for Pacific Lutheran University” (StudyGroup, 2006). The remaining staff in the ELC at Northumbria and NATFHE would do well to take note of Study Group’s delight in attaining the right to be the ‘exclusive’ English language provider at Pacific Lutheran.


DMG (und) Study Group International, DMG Information, at: http://www.dmginfo.com/sgi.html

Stewart, K. (2006) Lecturers strike over privatisation: NATFHE warns of a ‘hidden agenda’, Morning Star, 6th April, p.5.

StudyGroup (2005) New University Study Centre at the University of Sussex, Press Release, February, at: http://www.studygroup.com/corporate/english/news_2005/eces_isc_us.asp

StudyGroup (2006) New Partnership with Pacific Lutheran University, Press Release, December, at: http://www.studygroup.com/corporate/english/news_2006/plu.asp

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