David Mitchell writes in the London Observer in a paean to the private sector, a bunch of caring individuals who just want the rest of us to enjoy better and more efficient services:
The private sector is amazing, isn’t it? It’s easily the best sector. Apart from the voluntary sector, of course, which is inspiring and humbling and should give us all pause. But obviously, it’s not really a proper sector. By which I mean it’s vital – perhaps even more vital than the others – in just the same way that the Paralympics is perhaps more important than the Olympics.
But out of the two other sectors – which I’m certainly not going to call “the main two sectors” because that’s, I think, a really unimaginative way of looking at the vital voluntary sector – the private one has got to be the best, right? It’s like the free west, while the public sector is the Soviet Union but without the nuclear threat: all drab suits, grey offices, unattractive women and queues. You get a sense of concrete and drizzle, flares and puddles, all very 70s, whereas the private sector is dynamic and 80s. It’s much more Dynasty, more Howards’ Way, more using-proper-nouns-as-adjectives. It’s fax machines and swimming pools, shoulder pads and telling people where to stick it, in both professional and sexual contexts.
Yes, people who work in the private sector must look at public sector workers in disbelief. How did you end up there, they must think. What personality cocktail of laziness, self-loathing and intractable mediocrity would have led you to try to make your fortune (your incredibly modest fortune, albeit with overgenerous pension provision made possible only by tying the hands of enterprise) in that gloomy bureaucratic Mariana trench, far from the nourishing rays of the profit motive? How did the sorting hat of fate come to put you in life’s Hufflepuff (but with a touch of Slytherin thrown in when it comes to local government contracts)?
Those are the sort of questions that Carl Lygo, the chief executive of BPP, Britain’s only run-for-profit university, must have to bite his tongue to stop himself asking when talking to other educators. And he has been talking to them: he’s been discussing the possibility of running the business side of at least 10 publicly funded universities, going into “partnership” with them. They’d still make all the academic decisions, while BPP would deal with the admin. But isn’t this an uneven partnership? It lacks a shared aim. One half wants to run a good university, the other wants to make money. If a marriage is a partnership, isn’t this like getting hitched to a hooker?
Or maybe it’s just paying for goods and services. As Lygo says: “Most universities are running at high costs and don’t properly utilise their buildings. The private sector is better at procurement, because they are keener at negotiating better prices.” That’s the key argument in favour of outsourcing and subcontracting and other expressions for an institution giving up roles it was constituted to fulfil: the public sector is so congenitally wasteful that a private company will always be able to undercut it – that the inherent public-sector inefficiency equates to more than the profit the subcontractor takes.