Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Protecting the student interest in the case of institutional exit


With the lack of an HE Bill in the recent Queen’s Speech the sticking plasters of the last Parliament around various aspects relating to regulation become ever-more pressing.

Sector bodies, including GuildHE, Universities UK, HEFCE and others are considering how to protect the student interest in the event of course and programme closure but there is still the remaining question of what happens in the case of institutional failure.

This is fourth in a series of blogs that I have written about regulation, looking at various aspects of the regulatory landscape. I touched on this question of institutional exit in my second blog looking at protecting the student interest but in the absence of an HE Bill I wanted to flesh this out in a bit more detail.

It seems to me that there are three key elements relating to institutional failure, and each is likely to require slightly different approaches:

  • The exit of an institution delivering non-FHEQ (at level 4 or 5) provision
  • The exit of an institution delivering validated/accredited provision
  • The exit of an institution with Degree-Awarding powers

Continuity of study

The first point to stress is that for most students affected by institutional failure the most likely outcome that they would be seeking is continuity of study so that they are able to complete their course at another institution. Financial compensation, whilst seemingly attractive, should only be a last resort when other options around completing their studies elsewhere have been exhausted. Although it is worth highlighting that there might be additional costs for students needing to move institutions to study, such as additional travel or accommodation costs, which may need to be considered.

Last year several institutions lost their Highly Trusted Status (HTS) for international students, at that time the Home Office organised a Sponsorship Working Group and the sector came together, and worked with HEFCE to develop a Course Information Tool to provide information on alternative, comparable courses available. Whilst the impact of that tool is still to be seen, this option should form an important strand in future cases on institutional exit. It would be worth developing the structure of a tool now, when not having to respond to a crisis, and have it available when needed rather than having to recreate something each time. There could be a role here for UCAS.

It is also worth flagging up the challenge that most institutions teach different courses using a different syllabus and assessment methods which can give rise to difficulties around recognising credit from previous courses. This is something that we would urge increased flexibility when considering prior workload, and could require further elaboration relating to credit recognition.

Institution delivering non-FHEQ provision exiting

Firstly, the exit of an institution delivering non-FHEQ provision, this includes level 4 and 5 qualifications, such as HNC/HNDs awarded by Pearson/Edexcel. This is something, when I think back to last Summer’s HTS crisis, that is more common than we might want to admit and is likely to include many smaller private colleges.

There are a number of possible options, some of which are best considered at the point of entrance to the system. There could be strengthened expectations placed on these colleges at entrance to the sector through the course designation process, including clarifying how they would support affected students.

The challenge, thinking back to last Summer, is identifying who is responsible for supporting these students when things go wrong and the college isn’t able to support them. There could be more responsibility on the awarding organisation, such as Pearson in the HND/C scenario, to encourage them to strengthen their checks on who they allow to award their qualifications. But, this could go further and identify the expectations on them, as the awarding organisation, to support students affected find similar courses at other providers. This would be similar to the expectations we would place on partnerships with degree-awarding bodies.

Institution delivering provision under validated or franchise agreement exiting

Secondly, the exit of an institution delivering validated/accredited provision under an agreement with an institution with degree-awarding powers. This is perhaps the most straight-forward of the options. Since the qualification is awarded in the name of another institution, whether through franchise or validation agreement, there could be a more explicit duty on the validating partner to take responsibility for these students. It is likely that students studying these courses already have certain expectations in this regard.

This is likely to result in institutions looking more closely at who they validate, which would be a good thing for students but might result in fewer partnerships and so may give rise for the need of a CNAA Mark II that I suggested in my previous blog.

Institution with degree awarding powers exiting

This is the most unlikely of the options, not least given the wider economic impact on a locality would mean it unlikely that a Government would allow an institution to fail completely. However, this is the scenario with the widest impact – especially given the expectation in the previous section about all the partnership arrangements that that institution will have in place.

There is little agreement on the best way forward, with suggestions including pairing universities to guarantee that they will support the students from another institution. Some countries, such as Australia, have a Tuition Protection Scheme including a levy on institutions paid into an insurance scheme. It is likely that these costs would end up being passed on to the students and so those students at institutions least likely to fail would end up having to pay for other students. Clearly universities, particularly the most financially stable, are less keen on a scheme where they would be subsidising the mistakes of others.

There is unlikely to be a one-sized fits all approach to this scenario, but making a commitment to support students in the unlikely event of institutional exit – in a “comply or explain” type model -could be made an expectation to be included on the regulatory register.