Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

50 Shades of Dross?


There is a common refrain among universities about being tied up in red tape and concern about being punished for not following various Government rules. Whilst there may not be much pleasure in regulation, there is increasing recognition, particularly in the private sector, of the need for demonstrable reassurance and to protect both their own reputation and that of the sector more widely.

There have been private universities in the UK higher education sector for over forty years and yet there are still many that have a knee-jerk reaction when they are mentioned, not least following the concerns expressed in the National Audit Committee report, and Public Accounts Committee’s response, at the end of last year. This is reinforced by the fact that private colleges are now receiving significant public-backed funding – the Times Higher quote this as rising from “£30 million in 2010 when the coalition came to power, to a projected total of nearly £1 billion this year.”

 

Diversity in the private sector
It is worth re-iterating that there are very real differences across the private sector, with a number of very high quality institutions but also a long tail of other private colleges, memorably referred to by the Secretary of State as “dross”. This variation has been acknowledged in recent weeks by two announcements demonstrating the quite real differences within the – increasingly large – private sector.

Firstly, there was the welcome statement from the Minister relaxing some of the restrictions on private colleges that had achieved degree-awarding powers and so met the highest regulatory thresholds. This included increased flexibility in recruiting students by lifting the cap on student numbers for these seven providers and allowing them the flexibility to increase the number of students they recruit by up to 20 per cent in 2015-16.

However on the other hand, in recent weeks we have also seen the winding up of the Home Office’s Sponsorship Working Group, set up to support the students caught up in the ETS scandal following the suspension and revocation of Tier 4 licences from more than 60 private colleges. Having been involved in the group it just highlighted to me the variation amongst private providers, not least in how some of them dealt with it, or more to the point, didn’t support the legitimate students caught up in this.

Since starting at GuildHE I have visited many of our members, which now include a significant number of private providers. As I wandered around these private institutions I have been struck by their amazing facilities and equipment – such as the sound decks at the SAE Institute, or their sometimes quite stunning campuses – such as Regent’s University London in the middle of Regent’s Park, or Ashridge in its parkland estate, or the feeling of academic engagement and research at the British School of Osteopathy. But perhaps the thing that has struck me most is how similar they feel to most of the other 124 universities that I’ve visited.

However, whilst these institutions look and feel very similar, there are many private colleges that clearly don’t. We need a regulatory system that not only rewards those that are good but seriously tackles the biggest abuses and abusers. So how we support these high quality providers, whilst protecting the HE sector’s reputation from the less rigorous colleges, will be a key question to an incoming government.

Although the regulatory requirements have been strengthened in recent months for private providers, there is a concern that there are still a number of areas where there is a disparity between the public and private sectors. These include:

  • private providers only being able to access £6,000 student loans, rather than £9,000;
  • the removal of Student Number Controls for the public sector but still SNC restrictions for most of the private sector;
  • rules relating to charging VAT on educational courses in private institutions;
  • strict Home Office requirements relating to Highly Trusted Status that do not apply to public institutions – particularly around monitoring;
  • or more specific complaints such as the burden of bureaucracy when changing the course name of a designated course.

 

Need for an HE Bill
Over the period of the last Parliament the speed of change within the private sector has resulted in unexpected challenges arising, and so without the promised HE Bill addressing these holistically, this has resulted in a number of ad hoc solutions being scrambled together. These solutions have papered over the cracks but also created significant bureaucratic burdens on individual institutions in the meantime, often at short-notice.

There is a real feeling among private providers that they want a robust regulatory system to help distance themselves from the less reputable colleges but that this needs to be based on a planned approach rather than having to respond to various initiatives as they arise. It is this requirement for a more systematic approach to regulation – as well as to address the loopholes that still need to be filled – that demonstrates the very real need for an HE Bill in the next Parliament.

 

Conclusion
In this context regulation should enable high-quality, stable institutions to enter the system and deliver HE, and that the form of a provider should only matter insofar as we are able to reassure ourselves of the quality of the provision, and once reassurances have been met there should be equitable treatment.

Whilst this blog has concentrated on regulation in relation to private providers it is important to emphasise three other key principles that should apply more widely to all higher education institutions: the importance of protecting the student interest, a co-owned approach to regulation and the need for different tiers of regulation. These are themes that I will come back to in the coming weeks.