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Government reopens the higher education system

Following the government's new guidelines for alternative providers, Zaki Dogliani looks at recent trends allowing greater competition and reaction from the sector.
This article is more than 5 years old

Zaki is a reporter at Wonkhe.

The Department for Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) has published new guidance as to how private providers and further education (FE) colleges can enter the higher education sector, following a moratorium on new providers entering the system that was put in place before the General Election.

Photo: British High Commission
Business Secretary Sajid Javid (Photo: British High Commission)

Higher education: market entry guidance, effective from 15 September, includes information about gaining degree awarding powers, transferring from FE to HE and becoming eligible for Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funding.

The latter could have the largest impact, in opening up eligibility for £9k tuition fee loans, up from the £6k students at private institutions are currently entitled to, as long as providers meet an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

It seems apparent that, by facilitating new providers competing on a more equal footing, the government intends to increase competition for publicly funded universities.

But there are concerns in the sector about how the guidance seems to allow alternative providers who secure HEFCE designation, to be eligible for effectively indefinite degree-awarding powers. There are also concerns about a lack of quality assurance arrangements in place to monitor “newly indefinite” providers. Some sector leaders maintain that judging of degree awarding powers applications on advice from the Quality Assurance Agency is essential to safeguard the reputation of UK universities overseas.

The document appears to be the latest in a recent trajectory which has seen government keen to increasingly help private providers compete within the sector.

It is also in line with David Cameron’s description of the government’s overall approach to competition: “State monopolies should be broken and new providers with great ideas should be welcomed in”, he said during a speech in Leeds on 10 September.

Senior Conservatives are committed to the idea that creating more of a market, therefore increasing choice, raises standards and forces existing institutions to raise their game. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) appears to be a further mechanism aimed at achieving the latter.

The principle of stepping up competition for publicly funded universities is consistent with former Universities and Science Minister David Willetts’ idea of “the rising tide that raises all boats”. Universities, he suggested, will have no option but to raise standards if they want to compete and attract students – and fees – in high numbers.

But Wonkhe’s Mark Leach says that the enabling of new providers entering the system has not made older institutions innovate to the extent hoped for by government, hence the introduction of TEF, “the major point of departure from the Willetts platform of the last parliament.”

In his speech at Universities UK’s annual conference on 9 September, Universities Minister Jo Johnson pledged to continue to open the higher education market up “to ensure students have real choice that reflects their diverse needs”.

Johnson spoke about “competition not for its own sake, but because it empowers students and creates a strong incentive for providers to innovate and improve the quality of the education they are offering.”

But the idea that consumer choice empowers students has drawn criticism.

National Union of Students (NUS) Vice-President Higher Education Sorana Vieru says:

“NUS is firmly against the idea that education is for sale and that students are empowered through consumer choice. Education is a public good and the quality of provision and standards are not driven through privatisation, market ideologies and pitting institutions against each other, but through properly funding institutions.

“This means universities can invest in teaching and stimulating an environment in which students and staff can have honest conversations about improving education and collectively building strong academic communities they are both members of, rather than treating students as consumers demanding ‘value for money’”.

It has also been suggested that there is public unease about an increasing amount of taxpayers’ money going to for-profit firms which may be owned abroad.

In January, the coalition government announced increased regulation for alternative providers, but ensured that not all applied to their preferred “elite” end of the private sector – the seven providers with degree awarding powers. For example, these seven institutions do not have a student numbers cap and are not required to be designated each year, whereas alternative providers are.

But a February Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report said the government had not done enough with regulation to protect public money spent on alternative providers in the form of tuition fees for the students attending them, which increased from 7,000 in 2010-11 to over 50,000 by 2013-14. PAC claimed the government had ignored warnings from HEFCE and the University and College Union.

It is widely accepted that further education has struggled in recent years, with funding cut sharply, and colleges often finding it hard to compete with HE counterparts. It remains to be seen how much the guidance helps both FE colleges and private institutions, and how much resistance it meets from university leaders.

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