Global private higher education: an empirical profile of its size and geographical shape


Societies’ relative use of private and public services is an abiding and significant issue of scholarly and policy interest. For higher education, however, there has hitherto been no comprehensive dataset and, accordingly, no extensive, reliable analysis of the private-public distribution. As this article provides both the dataset and the analysis, it allows us to discover both the size and geographical shape of global private higher education. Having grown greatly for decades, the private sector now holds a third (32.9%) of the world’s total higher education enrollment. We find striking patterns of concentration and dispersion. The several largest country systems account for much of the private enrollment but, simultaneously, private sectors now exist in all but a few systems; a stunning 97.6% of the world’s present enrollment is in systems with dual-sector provision. Societies no longer rely exclusively on public provision. We discover too that private enrollment concentrates mostly in developing regions, though it is noteworthy in developed regions as well. Asia and Latin America are the twin giants but in all regions, at least 10% of students are in the private sector.

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  1. 1.

    The USA remains the lone national case of PHE that has long provided ample data and been much studied; that study has only rarely come in comparative international context (Shils 1973; Geiger 1986).

  2. 2.

    Two different sorts of exceptions to the stated dearth bare mention here. (1) The major regional exception provides detailed data and analysis on Latin America, but takes us only to 1980 (Levy 1986). (2) A recent global piece reflects the major interest in gauging PHE quantitatively but focuses more on private growth than on the configurations produced by the growth (Buckner 2017) and is handicapped by using data on numbers of institutions, not enrollments (see footnote no. 7).

  3. 3.

    PROPHE has for a decade posted data, which have been the most widely used data by scholars international agencies (Bjarnason (2009) for UNESCO; ADB (2012)), but they have been preliminary and subject to ongoing and recent modifications.

  4. 4.

    On only two countries, the UK and Israel, does PROPHE alter UIS designation in respect to private and public label.

  5. 5.

    Outside the USA, the most significant example of where PHE includes institutions limited in privateness is what the UIS and others label “government-dependent” private institutions, with ample publicness in finance and control; this phenomenon is rare outside Europe.

  6. 6.

    Certain kinds of private institutions (missionary schools, offshoots of businesses, correspondence schools, etc.) were often precursors to modern systems but almost all countries came to develop their modern systems predominantly through the public sector.

  7. 7.

    Number of institutions is the second most available type of data but a far off second and it is in any event a much inferior gauge of size, especially as so many institutions in PHE are tiny; where policymakers and analysts refer to PHE importance by private share of institutions, they exaggerate private importance.

  8. 8.

    The second ten countries in absolute private sector size are Mexico, Chile, Bangladesh, Colombia, Peru, Poland, Argentina, Venezuela, Malaysia, and France. Whereas Asia stands out in the top ten, Latin America stands out in this next ten.

  9. 9.

    India is the only country in the top ten where PHE equivalent to “government-dependent” has great weight.

  10. 10.

    While our mean of global private/total enrollment is 32.9%, the global mean of means across countries is 30.0% and the global median is 19.7%.

  11. 11.

    Unfortunately, policymakers and others sometimes characterize PHE in general by what they see of the USA. Given that the US’s PHE characteristics are exceptional, conflating US and global PHE is often a huge error.

  12. 12.

    A case could be made to add Taiwan (not included by UIS in its national listings) and Singapore to this article’s references to Japan and South Korea as developed countries with high private shares (both over 60%).

  13. 13.

    For developed and developing regions’ shares of global enrollment and population 2010, see

  14. 14.

    Only CANZ has less range, as it too lacks any country with a large private share, but also as it has only 3 countries with data versus Europe’s 44.

  15. 15.

    We separately explored the effects of omitting the systems largest in total enrollment but found no major difference from those shown through our principal exploration (omitting systems largest in private enrollment).

  16. 16.

    Roughly equal to India in total enrollment, the Chinese private share (19.6%) is well below Asia’s (42.1%) and even further below India’s 58.3%. Hence, whereas omitting India alone would modestly lower the regional average (to 35.9%), omitting both India and China would modestly raise the regional average (to 48.3%).


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Correspondence to Daniel C. Levy.

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Levy, D.C. Global private higher education: an empirical profile of its size and geographical shape. High Educ 76, 701–715 (2018).

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  • Private
  • Public
  • Global
  • Regional
  • Sectors