IN PRINT: Reconsidering Privatization in Cross-Border Engagements: The Sometimes Public Nature of Private Activity July 2011

Reconsidering Privatization in Cross-Border Engagements:
The Sometimes Public Nature of Private Activity

Published in the Higher Education Policy (see link to full article in gray box below).

By Jason E. Lane and Kevin Kinser

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ABSTRACT: Around the globe, the trend toward privatization has become a pervasive topic in the field of higher education. This is for good reason: Most countries have seen growth in private-sector colleges or a diversification of revenue streams in public colleges and universities.

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Jason E. Lane is an Institute Fellow and assistant professor of educational administration and policy studies at the University at Albany, where he is also co-leader of the Cross-Border Education Research Team. Kevin Kinser is an associate professor at the University at Albany. He studies non-traditional and alternative higher education, particularly the organization and administration of for-profit and virtual universities. Their full article appears in Higher Education Policy.

Privatization trends have typically been analyzed from the perspective of the institution and its relationship with the sponsoring state. The recent phenomenon of international cross-border higher education, however, represents a more complicated picture as it involves more than one government.

Some governments are now seeking to import foreign education providers in order to bolster their domestic higher education offerings. At the same time, many higher education institutions now operate as multinational enterprises, decoupling off-campus partnerships and branch campuses from the nation where the home campus was initially chartered and funded to serve. This movement toward offshore activities can be seen as one of the most extraordinary forms of privatization in the public sector: universities developing into multinational enterprises pursuing increased revenue and prestige.

But adjusting the analysis from the relationship between the institution and the home government to the relationship between the institution and the host government can demonstrate the sometimes public nature of private activity. In many developing nations, governments are looking to foreign institutions, irrespective of their public or private status at home, to complement the existing state-sponsored institutions in achieving public ends. In the host country, such institutions are usually considered non-governmental organizations and often operate under regulations distinct from state-sponsored higher education; but some are still designed to pursue public goals of the host government.

This paper examines the concept of privatization through cross-border educational initiatives, and argues that the public and private nature of cross-border higher education can only be fully understood when considering the relationship with both the home and host countries. The analysis is based on comparisons of how governments in Qatar and the Malaysian state of Sarawak use foreign education providers to support government goals, and how those seemingly public purposes throw some traditional concepts of privatization into question.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.