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More regulation still needed to prevent ‘cashpoint colleges’

Fees for nothing. ShuttrKing|KT , CC BY

Although the independent higher education sector is small in England, it is growing – and gaining some negative publicity along the way. Without primary legislation to more effectively regulate the newly marketised sector, which I led calls for in a report to parliament last year, more “scandals” are likely to be uncovered in the sector, even if these do not provide the full picture.

Secret filming at the London School of Science and Technology as part of an investigation into “cashpoint colleges” by The Guardian, has suggested that students apparently had to do little studying to receive awards in return for fees.

This seems to reinforce the views of some that most of these new providers are little better than “bogus degree mills” that should never be allowed to start in the first place. The National Audit Office has been asked to investigate the allegations.

Current government plans are that independent, non-publicly funded higher education institutions should be encouraged to expand in numbers and standing – not least to offer wider choice to students. Behind this lies an aim, set out by higher education minister David Willetts, that competition from newcomers will encourage those traditional institutions that receive government funding for teaching and research to be more responsive to the student market.

Struggle for respectability

But without elite private universities of the kind found in the United States, this new sector is always liable to struggle for respectability. The absence of promised legislation by the government means that we lack a systematic regulatory framework that would more rigorously weed out the bad apples and also confer an element of equal standing for the others with their publicly-funded counterparts.

Dubious admissions practices in a few US private colleges have created quite a stir in the US Senate and the wider media. They have done little to promote the credibility or trustworthiness of the sector there. Could this be spreading across the Atlantic? Or perhaps commercial markets and the “public good” characteristic of higher education like water and wine – are best never mixed.

Most students in this new independent sector are concentrated in a few large institutions around London. We know little about them and the government has only recently bothered to collect annual data. In 2013, it published analysis identifying 674 privately funded higher education providers, with an estimated 160,000 students.

But many are usually new or recently emerged out of other entities and are difficult to track. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is setting up a register of “recognised bodies” but it is not yet in a position to get anywhere capturing all such providers.

Very little is known, especially about overseas institutions who have arrived in this country to offer non-UK degrees. At the very least, some process of registration as a higher education entity for these transnational bodies would be a start in offering a level of UK consumer protection.

Meeting unserved demand

We do know that this growing sector is very heterogenous – whether in terms of size, what they offer, the fees that are charged, the awards available, and most likely the quality of the provision. The major players are the six recognised entities. Four are charities: Regent’s University London, the University of Buckingham, ifs University College, and Ashbridge Business School. There are also two for-profit companies – BPP University and the University of Law. Kingston University researcher Steve Woodfield’s recent article offers a more comprehensive account.

Yet the sector as a whole appears to be strong in promoting access to students who would not typically go to more traditional institutions. Woodfield’s research found that around two-thirds of students are over 25, around the same proportion are in employment, and many have family responsibilities. A sizeable tranche of overseas students is also a feature.

It is hard not to think that the vast majority of these colleges are meeting a need of some kind that is not being met elsewhere. Mostly, it is in providing professional-type courses in information technology, the arts, law and various business subjects. A number of vocational sub-degrees are on offer, including those examined by large private companies such as Pearson and EdExcel.

To date, large successful conglomerate companies have yet to enter the field in the UK to any real degree. If they did they could use their brand leverage to help the independent colleges compete with a different model to that of the conventional providers.

Not the Wild West

The government’s regulatory thrust is to ensure a gradual if piecemeal progression to a “level playing field” for all providers. The newer entrants are thus encouraged to take on the practices and symbols of the traditional sector. They are seeking degree-granting status, university title and, perhaps most crucially of all, access to publicly-funded student loans.

Yet whether this means that all providers should eventually be subject to exactly the same regulation is by no means clear given the lack of recent governmental responses on these issues.

Nonetheless, all institutions that provide courses leading to UK awards (including here and abroad) are regulated for quality. This really is not the “Wild West”, despite the impression given by the recent Guardian investigation.

Educational oversight and quality assurance is operated by the Quality Assurance Agency. Programmes for professional bodies are regulated by the relevant professional, statutory and regulatory bodies.

Controls are also in place over the designation of university title and degree-awarding powers, the ability to offer degrees in collaboration with universities and colleges that have degree-awarding powers, and over access to student loans.

Yet gaps in the regulatory coverage of the sector remain. Unlike for the publicly-funded sector, it is only a voluntary requirement for independent institutions to provide data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and to submit access plans to the Office for Fair Access. Membership of the Office of the Independent Arbitrator is also voluntary.

The most vociferous calls for new regulation – and more controls – come from the larger new independent players, as shown in the evidence provided to the recent inquiry on regulating the sector by the Higher Education Commission. They know that without it, everyone is likely to be tarred with the same brush.

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