Collaboration and transparency are key to academic partnerships

IHE's Angela Halston introduces findings from a report on franchise and partnership arrangements that reflects on both the value and the risks that such arrangements bring

Angela Halston is a Senior Policy and Engagement Officer at Independent Higher Education

A new report from Independent Higher Education (IHE) and Pinsent Masons on the state of play in academic partnerships in the UK offers a timely reminder of the value of these relationships and the contribution they make to student choice and opportunity at a moment when scrutiny is – understandably – focused on other aspects of such arrangements.

When we began the project, the National Audit Office (NAO) had not publicly confirmed its interest in student loans at franchised higher education providers, nor handed its investigative baton to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and in England the Office for Students (OfS) had yet to turn its regulatory attention to prioritise student outcomes data within partnership arrangements.

Like why are we here? And where do we go?

It transpired there was a lot to cover.

Over the 50 or so pages of our final report, we delve into why partnerships exist, how they are formed and managed, the costs involved, what happens when there are problems, the reasons why they end, what the impact of regulation has been, and what may happen in the future.

The partnership between an awarding provider and a teaching provider serve a number of different purposes, and it is these particular motivations which can often shape the character, the conditions, and the comparative success of one partnership over another.

Awarding providers predominantly view partners as collaborators. A quarter of those surveyed create partnerships to help with widening participation in geographic areas which they could not otherwise reach. For nearly half of teaching providers, their primary motivation for creating partnerships is to access the awarding powers of their partners, and they view the relationships as providing critical friends. For students, they decide to study with a specialist provider who can give them access to the facilities and industry connections they seek. This triumvirate of motivations should be protected and facilitated.

It’s not always easy and sometimes life can be deceiving

In the project’s interim working paper, we proposed a typology of partnerships to help address a lack of clarity around terminology that we identified through our research. We found that inconsistent use of language had the effect of seeding confusion within the sector, as well as in government, making it more difficult to get to grips with issues relating to franchised provision in particular. For example, on the OfS register, there is no distinction between ‘franchise’ and ‘sub-contract’ arrangements. And so it is no wonder that, in our survey, some teaching providers label themselves as one when the operational detail of their delivery model dictates they must be another.

In England today, conversations continue about the wisdom of requiring all franchised providers to register with the OfS, even if they do not wish to directly access the benefits of doing so. This makes some sense, superficially, until you start to think about the conditions of registration. B7 (Quality) and B8 (Standards) are not designed for providers operating soley under franchise agreements. These providers do not have control over quality and standards as this remains under the purview of the awarding partner. So perhaps lining up all of England’s franchised providers to join the OfS register isn’t the silver bullet after all, unless OfS conditions of registration change significantly – but then, we don’t really know who is a franchisee anyway. And is that even where the risk to quality or the student interest manifests? Our research showed that most teaching providers have just one partner, and those awarding partners with lower numbers of partnerships have lower numbers of students too, so student numbers alongside provision type may need to be a consideration. Would the level of regulatory burden imposed through registration therefore match the regulatory risk to be mitigated?

Other areas would benefit from greater transparency too. Students are clear on the benefits of well-functioning partnerships, but they also reported how difficult it can be to navigate between partners and processes when they are faced with problems that no one seems to want to take ownership of. The surveys also told us that there is more work to do on consistency in practice and sharing learning in complaints and appeals.

It would be of great value to prospective students and to the sector as a whole if we were able to understand the reason for high fees where they occur – the fee structures and amounts vary enormously. Greater transparency might bring changes to help reduce costs and improve the value for money of partnerships for students and the taxpayer alike.

I’ll tell you one thing, it’s always better when we’re together

Awarding providers report that the systems they create to manage partnerships are not just to satisfy their own need for oversight but to assist with the development of their partner as well. We found that partnerships are just as likely to evolve or to end for positive reasons, such as the teaching provider gaining their own Degree Awarding Powers (DAPS), as for more negative reasons, such as concerns relating to quality or financial challenges. Teaching providers value their partner’s abilities to act in these nurturing roles as they pursue their institutional development goals; awarding providers are enabling this in a way which will create choice and opportunity for the long term throughout the sector. Now that sounds like something worth working together for.

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