Making public-private partnerships work in higher education

Making public-private partnerships work in higher education

There is growing interest, among public sector higher education institutions, in engaging with private sector partners to provide complementary services and expertise, and to share investment and risk. The challenges faced by higher education institutions are creating a new climate for innovative solutions, but there are a number of important considerations for anyone thinking about private-public partnerships (PPPs). In this post, Suzanne Alexander, an EAIE trainer teaching a course on PPPs at the Spring Academy in Marseille, outlines some of these concerns.

The outsourcing of service tasks, such as catering and cleaning, is now commonplace by higher education institutions. Private finance initiatives (PFIs) provide investment for infrastructure and facilities such as student residential accommodation. Many universities appoint advertising agencies to support corporate marketing, branding and PR. In all of these cases, the aim is to bring in expertise which does not exist within the institution or would require significant time and/or resources to develop in-house, and which is not specifically the core business of higher education institutions (HEIs).
While universities engage in their own recruitment activities, sometimes establishing their own office presence in selected countries, the use of education consultants – ie agents – although not without some controversy, is becoming far more widespread. The delivery of programmes is clearly the core business of HEIs, and so engaging with third party private providers may seem a step too far, raising concerns about quality assurance and ‘ownership’ of students and the student experience.
It must be acknowledged that there is a difference in the nature of the relationship with a company providing catering services and one delivering preparatory or ‘pathway’ programmes. As more institutions engage with private companies, we see that the latter are being challenged to do more than provide a menu of standard products and instead provide customised solutions in order to create successful and sustainable partnerships.

Complementary goals

It is often said that successful partnerships require both parties to have ‘shared goals’. When it comes to public-private partnerships, it is important to accept that it is very hard for public and private institutions to have shared goals, and that the emphasis should rather be on ‘complementary goals’. Anyone with partnership experiences will appreciate two key aspects of complementary goals:

  1. The ability of each party to understand the other’s objectives and priorities, as well as the language used to express them, reflecting the different organisational cultural perspectives.
  2. The continuous process of monitoring the partnership’s progress and performance, and working together to adjust the strategies to ensure the delivery of the benefits that each party expects from the relationship – and recognising that these will change over time.

Real partnership

There is a significant difference between buying products and services – a ‘vendor’ relationship – and a ‘partner’ relationship with a commercial provider. In choosing partners, business development professionals often look for strong, public commitment to the success of a partnership. For public HEIs, this type of commitment comes when a partner’s product or service is integrated into the teaching mission of the university, making it core to the institution’s success. Both private companies and higher education institutions entering into this kind of partnership can benefit substantially from the broad commitment and engagement from their partners. Yet will need to be prepared to put in the work it will take in order to be successful.

Learning more

At the EAIE Spring Academy in Marseille, France, we will be teaching the course ‘How to engage private partners in international student prep programmes’. Learn how your institution can benefit from private partners by joining us! Be sure to register by 6 March to save on the fee.

Suzanne is Director of the International Office at the University of Leicester, UK and Gunilla is Senior advisor for External Relations at Lund University, Sweden.