Public and private universities: evolution of productivity and impact of the crisis

Eva M. de la Torre García, Autonomous University of Madrid
"la Caixa” Social Observatory Award for the best article in the field of Education

The analysis carried out on the efficiency and productivity of public and private universities in Spain shows that in 2009/10, the greater flexibility of private universities made better adjustment between their resources (faculty and enrolled students) and their levels of production (in teaching and research) possible. Nevertheless, the crisis has led to an adjustment and overall improvement in efficiency—more pronounced in public universities than in private universities. So much so that in 2013/14, the level of efficiency of public universities surpassed that of private universities.
Key points
  • 1
       Although the 33 private universities account for 40% of Spanish universities (83 in total), during the academic year 2016/17, they only comprised 14% of university students.
  • 2
       The overall improvement in efficiency in universities brought about by the crisis has been more pronounced in public universities than in private universities, to the point that the level of efficiency of public universities has surpassed that of private universities.
  • 3
       Despite a reduction in the resources of public universities between 2009/10 and 2013/14, their levels of production remained constant as the students enrolled when tuition fees increased (2012/13) had not yet graduated and most of the research underway in 2010 still produced results in 2013/14.
  • 4
       The growth of the private university sector has not led to greater competition and transparency in higher education in Spain.
The private sector in higher education in Europe and Spain
The private sector in higher education in Europe and Spain

In the case of Europe, private universities tend to be smaller than public universities, which is why their weight in higher education systems is low. According to the most recent data from the European Tertiary Education Register (ETER), during the academic year 2014/15, nearly a third (32.6%) of European universities were private, although they accounted for only 24.1% of students enrolled in higher education in Europe. The case of Spain is not that different. Although the 33 private universities account for 40% of Spanish universities (83 in total), during the academic year 2016/17, they only comprised 14% of students.

Characteristics of public and private universities in Spain
Characteristics of public and private universities in Spain

Although both public and private universities operate within the same legal framework and are assigned the same fundamental tasks (teaching, research and knowledge transfer), public universities are constrained by greater regulation and stricter control mechanisms.

The differences that may affect the results obtained include those related to the faculty (private universities have greater flexibility as they do not have civil servants), the range of degrees (private universities tend to focus on a few areas of knowledge and postgraduate studies, whereas public universities tend to be more generalist) and the source of funding (public or private).

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Eva M. de la Torre García, Autonomous University of Madrid
"la Caixa” Social Observatory Award for the best article in the field of Education

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