This article is more than 8 years old

The White Paper proposals will bring order to the independent sector

Joy Elliott-Bowman argues that the desperately needed coherence in regulation will be welcome for alternative providers, their students, and the sector as a whole.
This article is more than 8 years old

Joy Elliott-Bowman is Director of Policy and Development for Independent Higher Education UK.

The past two decades have seen a steady growth on two fronts: in the number of students seeking higher education and in the number of institutions (both public and independent) providing it. This is not coincidence, but cause and effect.

Following the university expansions of the 1960s and 1980s, which gave us the Universities of York, Kent and Lancaster to name a few, student demand has brought us again to a critical time for higher education. Growing demand in numbers alone has driven the need for more providers, while growing demand for innovative, industry-focused, and vocational courses in particular has directed the expansion of provision towards largely teaching-focused institutions, very different from the research-laden traditional universities.

The White Paper is a much-needed response to this recent expansion. While the headlines harp on about ‘new entrants’ and ‘marketisation’, these proposals will do far more to bring consistent and effective regulation to bear on the independent sector – and through it, more confidence and stability for students – than to open the floodgates to a wave of new providers. The truth is that the wave has already broken.

The independent sector is thriving, as students turn to courses designed with their needs and interests in mind, not those of a distracted, research-focused, rankings-obsessed faculty. Many want intensive two-year degrees, flexible learning or less costly courses, and to be taught by industry experts instead of leading researchers. What they need, though, and what this White Paper delivers, is consistency and clarity in how these attractive new providers who do not receive public funding are regulated, and their quality assured.

The failure to pass HE legislation in 2011 has resulted in piecemeal, reactionary and optional regulation for independent providers, focused more on access to loans than a quality student experience. In the absence of legislation to create a single regulator for HE, multiple arms of government have developed partial solutions to monitoring quality on the fly and off the cuff. These regulators have been facing implementation, evolution and revision issues simultaneously, and leaving individual providers unsure of where they will end up in a regulatory game of musical chairs.

The White Paper marks the first serious attempt to bring coherence to regulation across higher education through its ‘single route’. Providers can clearly understand what is expected of them and either rise to this challenge or safely exit whilst protecting students. Both are extremely difficult at present because of piecemeal and reactionary regulation, which has led to Home Office immigration officers parading around as arbiters of quality.

The single route will also offer a series of protections to the sector. Most independent providers make reasonable decisions based on carefully considered risks, with the aim of ensuring that their students receive the best education possible. Widely publicised evidence has shown us, however, that some do not. The White Paper proposals for ‘Approved Provider’ status will ensure that the majority can conclusively demonstrate their quality, while those who fall short will no longer be able to get by on the reputations of the sector. Providers who have invested in quality will receive the financial rewards of this investment. Others will need to step up their game to achieve the same result.

Students are already voting with their application forms for independent providers, and their designation for student funding has broadened this eager cohort further. The White Paper will give more of them than ever the chance to study fashion with Vogue, dramatic arts in a working theatre or football business in Wembley stadium, supported financially and through an easy-to-understand system of quality judgements and information. Instead of a ranking system dominated by research, which makes no attempt to understand the student experience, initiatives like the Teaching Excellence Framework could provide the opportunity for applicants to evaluate the learning and teaching they could receive at an institution. Leaving aside detailed debates on the implementation of TEF, it is the first and only platform for comparing teaching across the full range of HE providers. It will no doubt be – like the RAE/REF before it – developed and redeveloped, and its qualitative detail will define its success. But at least it starts somewhere, for reliable information on teaching is sorely needed by students.

The UK higher education sector has never been a traditional market, and regulation must never reduce it to a uniform service provided to students of a certain age. Students are not uniform, their futures are not uniform, nor therefore should their higher education be uniform. This White Paper aims to regulate what student choice has already made necessary: industry-led, innovative teaching which responds quickly to student and employer needs. Not only will students today have many jobs over their working life, but many will have one which did not exist when they started their degree. HEIs must move as quickly as the world for which they are preparing their students.

The job of the government is not to restrict student choice but to ensure they are fully informed in the choices they make. The predictable decisions by some universities to try to protect their dominant model – and deny students this choice – is regrettable. As long as there is student choice there will be competition, and all that comes with it. This White Paper is simply about setting fair, consistent, and transparent ground rules for that competition.

3 responses to “The White Paper proposals will bring order to the independent sector

  1. Fantastic article. The AP/CHIN sector is extremely diverse in terms of institution type, course offer and FSGM. The proposed single route and 3 different types of ‘approval’ status are very important so that diverse ambition is served in a model that best fits the institution. For the HE sector in general this will ensure only APs who take quality seriously will be able to get on the reformed register and be a ‘government approved’ HE institution. Very important for safeguarding the HE brand and a challenge that all serious APs will endorse.

  2. Order should be created by applying the same criteria as currently applies to those providers wishing to have degree awarding powers and not by lowering the bar.

  3. “Following the university expansions of the 1960s and 1980s, which gave us the Universities of York, Kent and Lancaster to name a few”

    Only one new university was created during the 1980s – the small University of Buckingham which mainly recruited overseas students then was given a Royal Charter by Thatcher in 1983. This was the same year that the UGC announced significant cuts in funding that threatened the existence of several other universities. In the case of UWIST and Cardiff, there was an enforced merger in 1989 that reduced the number of universities.

    Of course there was a massive expansion in student numbers in the Polytechnics and other large colleges during this decade, due to the Tory government’s policy of expansion “on the cheap”. However the number of HE institutions in the local authority sector continued to decline significantly, mainly due to continuing mergers and particularly those resulting from the decline of specialist teaching training institutions (I can only recall one such merger crossing over the then binary line – Bulmershe with Reading in 1989 – Canley with Warwick was earlier, in 1979).

    There certainly were over a dozen ‘new’ universities created in the 1960s, not just the “plate glass” ones on the outskirts of the places mentioned, but the transfer of the CATS and the creation of the OU. But I’m not quite sure where the author gets the idea from that there was an expansion of the number of institutions in the 1980s, despite the significant expansion in demand and numbers of students hat took place then.

    “Growing demand” in the 1980s and 1990s certainly did not drive “the need for more providers”, just as growing demand for oil did not increase the number of major oil companies in the market – the “Seven Sisters” of the 1950s became only four by 2001!

    The market has not increased the number of providers – many other institutions could have followed the “Buckingham” model but demand for fee based higher education from within the UK was minimal; instead it has been delivered by recent government policies, from overseas demand, and by the extension of state-backed fee loans.

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