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Private sector
Frogmarch 2002 - Whitby

Over the past few months I’ve read various discussions, on LiveJournal and elsewhere, about privatisation, and about public sector versus private sector ownership of assets and provision of services. One thing that has become apparent is that some ardent supports of the public sector have, what seems to me, a greatly distorted view of what is meant by the private sector.

I’ve worked briefly in the public sector; as a student in the early ’90s I spent summers working at GCHQ, and from 2006–09 I worked part-time on a research project at the University of Dundee. From my direct and indirect experience, and from chatting to Andrew while I write this, I would characterise work in the public sector as working for large, bureaucratic organisations, with an air of inefficiency and overstaffing. The organisations are typically unionised, or unionisation is a significant issue. Pensions are notably better in the public sector, and early retirement on a full pension is a realistic option. There is room for deadwood in the organisation, and employees seldom have any contact with real decision making.

It seems to me that people with experience of the public sector often characterise the private sector as being large PLCs, perhaps international in ownership, with nothing driving them but the profit motive. Staff aren’t valued, employment is precarious, managers are evil, and the organisation behaves like companies do in BBC dramas.

That bears no relation to the private sector that I know. From my experience, private sector companies are likely to have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Small companies. The majority of people employed in the private sector are employed by small businesses.
  • Human scale. As businesses are usually small, it is possible to know everyone who works for the company.
  • Ownership by employees. Most businesses are owned by people who also work for the company, or who have a close connection to the company. A significant number of businesses in the private sector are sole traders, but ownership models like partnerships and private limited companies (Ltd) both keep ownership closely connected with the operation of the business. Only public limited companies (PLC) — with their pension-fund shareholders — break this link.
  • Benevolent ownership. Because the owners of a business usually have a close connection to that business, and often work for the business, what is good for the owner is also good for the company.
  • Knowing the owner. It is possible for an employee have a personal relationship with the owner of the company they work for.
  • Cost driven. Most businesses are motivated by the need to control costs, rather than by a blatant desire to achieve greater profits.
  • Long-term thinking. Business owners are in it for the long run. They plan for the future, invest their time and money, and want to build a solid business.
  • Staff are treated as individuals; the person matters more than the role. Staff are valued for the skills they have, rather than for their qualifications.
  • Variety. The purpose, ethos, and culture of businesses is highly variable.
  • Failure has consequences.
  • Family. One often finds owners’ family members working in a small company. Nepotism is common; after all, they may be owners in the future.

How would you characterise the private sector?

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It’s certainly a difficult time for teaching jobs throughout further and higher education. Some subjects, and some institutions, will suffer more than others, and I expect that to continue. With research funding being similarly constrained, those institutions heavily dependent on government or EU research funding will suffer most.

Thankfully there is still private and charitable money flowing into research, and international students are still a good source of income for attractive institutions. (As long as the UKBA doesn’t mess it up! http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/2169059)

One consolation we’ll have in the future is that — I hope — the cuts will focus students and funding on real subjects; those with an academic pedigree.

I'm in FE. We actively recruit international students, particularly from China, and we're extending our reach to Vietnam and India. However, as you know, the government are trying to limit the number of international students, particularly in universities, in order to help alleviate Daily Mail-type complaints about mass immigration. Many universites are fearful of those reductions. (Interestingly, not too many people complain about people like me as immigrants -- American, native English speaker, white, well educated etc. :)

Real subjects? Hmm. Some people think that literature is a lightweight subject, after all, and if you're not studying maths or sciences, you're useless. Cameron's emphasis is on maths, sciences and certain foreign languages, isn't it? Unfortunately, it's not so much an academic pedigree they're after. We've been told quite clearly at FE that our emphasis must be geared towards job preparation -- making sure our students, no matter what qualifications they're earning (A levels, BTecs etc.) are ready for work. The idea of learning for learning's sake is outdated, alas.

Perhaps that is a key distinction between further and higher education — further education is preparing students for the job market, while university education can provide teaching and research in other areas. A mistake in recent years has been in trying to push more and more young people into a university education for which they were academically unsuited.

Many universities are deeply financially dependent on international students. Presumably your institution gains significantly from its overseas students. I’d expect the government to want to support charging foreign students wherever possible. I thought most of problems with immigration scams centred around language schools rather than established colleges?

The current emphasis on maths and sciences is correcting a long-term imbalance in education. Maths and hard sciences have been in decline, exacerbated in the latter years of the Labour government. They are essential subjects that need support (although not, I would argue, at the expense of other genuinely academic subjects).

A levels are preparing students for university, however.

Many of the problems regarding immigration scams indeed concern 'questionable' language schools. However, there are a number of people in this country worried about immigration in general -- and afraid that immigrants are 'stealing' jobs, benefits etc. There's also the fear of certain immigrants coming here to be terrorists. Finally, there's the fear that too many of these foreign students will stay here and 'steal' jobs etc.

The crackdown regarding international students is for all international students; they can't fairly just say it's for students from certain countries or studying certain courses. There's talk that perhaps certain FE colleges with good reputations (such as where I work) will still be permitted to recruit international students. Maybe. (It reminds me of how I had to jump through hoops to earn Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) here. I went through the Overseas Trained Teacher (OTT) programme. An Ofsted inspector observed five lessons taught over two days, and I produced a three-inch thick portfolio of evidence. I was told that basically anyone trained to teach in the US, Canada, Australia and other such countries was fine -- and should be granted QTS automatically. However, as there were teachers here from countries with training considered not as good, all foreign teachers must jump through hoops. Fair enough.

As an American, I still find it amusing sometimes that students here don't have to study English, maths etc, through age 18 -- nor at uni. My BA is in English (language and literature -- it's all combined there) with minors (secondary degrees) in theatre and psychology; however, I had to take science classes in order to graduate. They want all-around graduates there, so you must take courses outside of your degree area. (That's why it takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree there.) No matter what subject your MA or MS is in there, you have to take statistics in order to graduate. (I enjoyed my stats class.)

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