On 10 July 2020, five men sitting around a table in a WeWork near London Fields registered a UK company. Now – less than four months on – it had university title, taught degree awarding powers, and a place on the Office for Students register of providers.
As many smaller independent higher education providers have waited for years for registration, one had to ask what it was that this plucky little start-up did right?
The short, if surprising, answer is that degree awarding powers and university title are assets that can be bought and sold. At least, so it would appear under these specific circumstances.
Got your DAPs?
For most of its short life this recent start-up has rejoiced in the name “GGE UK Newco”, but on 29 September it changed its name to “Regent’s University London Limited”. If you were thinking that the name sounds familiar, “Regent’s University London” was formerly registered with the Office for Students. This old company was a charitable company limited by guarantee, with taught degree awarding powers (TDAPs) awarded in 2012 and university title (UT) awarded in 2013. It even got TEF Bronze in 2019.
The former Regent’s University London (RUL) charity is now (as of 29 September) known as the Inner Circle Education Trust, having transferred its assets and undertakings to GGE UK Newco. It would have been paid a fair price for these assets, and the funds raised will now be available to further its charitable aims – the advancement of education for the public benefit, and the foundation, maintenance, support, and carrying on of a university or universities.
Regent’s University London Limited (RULL) is the wholly owned end product of a partnership between Regent’s University London (RUL) and Galileo Global Education (Galileo). Galileo is a big company, and a big educational provider, with more than 110,000 students each year at one of 42 institutions in 10 cities around the world (including at the UK’s Istituto Marangoni).
Galileo has purchased the former assets of the charity. Staff and students still work and learn in the same buildings, the same courses are offered, and the same contracts apply. Degrees awarded will now be from RULL rather than RUL, but it is unlikely that students will see any other immediate difference.
But RULL is not RUL. It is a new legal entity – it has a separate registration at Companies House. It is a company limited by shares, not a charity. And it is a new provider – it has a new UK provider reference number (farewell 10003331, hello 10086591).
The regulatory framework contains specific guidelines on a provider undergoing a change of ownership. Paragraph 144 is clear that this would be a Reportable Event:
in response to a change of ownership, the OfS would investigate the new owner, consider its suitability to own an English higher education provider, and reassess the risk presented by the provider.”
But this is not just a change of ownership, this is a new provider with a new legal form.
This might feel like a semantic point – and you may well argue that the addition of the word “limited” does not materially change the nature of RUL as was, which has been a member of the UK higher education sector as broadly defined since 1984, and a university since 2013. Certainly RULL remains a UUK member in good standing, and its research degrees continue to be validated by the University of Northampton (though the standard review of due diligence is underway). But the OfS register is our source of truth – RULL received degree awarding powers in 2020, and university title in 2020. Last week, in other words.
Geoff Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Regent’s University London Limited, told us:
Throughout our negotiations with Galileo Global Education, the Office for Students has been actively involved and fully engaged. We are pleased that after careful assessment, Registration and Degree Awarding Powers were conferred on Regent’s University London, now under Galileo’s ownership. Following a letter of No Objection from the Department for Education, Companies House was also able to confirm the use of university title. In practical terms, Galileo will continue the operation of this cohesive and self-critical academic institution that previously achieved Degree Awarding Powers in 2012 and university title in 2013.”
We asked OfS for a comment specifically on whether the new Regent’s University London Limited underwent a QAA Quality and Standards Review (QSR) and whether it holds provisional or full teaching degree awarding powers (the TDAPs are provisional for four years, it later emerged – had this change not happened RUL could fairly have expected indefinite TDAPs at around this point). We were told that the regulator won’t be commenting on individual providers.
A registration record breaker
Our newest provider therefore breaks all previous registration records – at a time when most registration activity has been paused it has arrived here from that meeting at WeWork in just under 90 days. New providers seeking registration would usually have to wait around 180 days from an initial expression of interest to pass the required Quality and Standards Review (QSR), which is the first step in the route to registration. The QAA runs the QSR process on request from the Office for Students – as far as we can find out no such request was made regarding Regent’s University London Limited. QAA also has a role in university title decisions and TDAPs – again, it does not appear to have been consulted on this occasion.
Registration, TDAPs, and university title are usually three separate processes that take time to work through. Several independent providers of higher education have been waiting since August 2018 for a registration decision alone. They’re not likely to be impressed at this apparent waiving of the rules. Independent HE told us:
It’s great to see more of our members added to the register in recent weeks, but there are still providers who have been in the queue for two years now. This is simply unacceptable. OfS need to get a grip and clear the backlog before they cause more damage to the sector and their own reputation”
The sector now faces questions on an important principle. However strong the safeguards and however reputable the providers and companies involved it is clearly controversial to allow (effectively) the purchase of university title or degree awarding powers. Moreover, these actions take us outside the ambit of the OfS Regulatory Framework. Paragraph 82 states:
Where there is a complex legal form, for example involving overseas control, the OfS may seek specialist advice including corporate intelligence and due diligence work from independent experts about these issues and may charge a fee to the provider for this work. If the fee is not paid, the OfS may decline to consider the application further. The OfS may apply a specific ongoing condition of registration if it is not satisfied that the same level of transparency and assurance over the controlling entity can be achieved as would be the case for any other entity subject to English law.”
And applies specifically to a new provider seeking registration. It is not clear that this has happened, and as above OfS has not been willing to confirm that this happened. We’re sure it probably has, but transparency would be helpful.
This may be an edge case, involving a provider with a unique history and form – and an established and respectable global chain and an established and respectable English provider clearly presents very little new risk – but this development will be examined very carefully by existing providers facing financial challenges, and by potential new global entrants to the English higher education sector