There are currently 388 providers on the Office for Students register, but this covers a wide range of different institutions, and the boundary between alternative and traditional providers is blurring.
In fact, the OfS register does not differentiate between these categories at all. Many independent providers including Futureworks, where I work, are in the Approved (fee cap) category, and some already have degree awarding powers. You can’t even spot them by how old they are, the London Institute of Banking and Finance is one of the oldest independent providers and it was founded in 1879. From a data perspective, the main difference is that we currently complete a smaller data return (the AP Student return) for HESA, but even this will change eventually when Data Futures is implemented.
Smaller can mean more
Most of my career has been spent in large universities, where a course with 100 students enrolled would be considered small, you took the systems you had for granted, and jobs were centred around a single function. Nearly two years ago I moved to Futureworks, an independent provider specialising in undergraduate degrees for the creative industries in Manchester, and my perspective was changed.
I have learnt more working at Futureworks than I have in any other role I have had at larger institutions. Not only do I have sole responsibility for all things data, but I also get involved in a range of projects across other teams. During my first month in the role I had to make sure we were GDPR compliant as that was about to come into law. I also had to complete my first ever data return, start planning how to build a student records system, and build a database for curriculum data. Thankfully the usual new job tasks didn’t take long – I met almost everyone in the company on my first day. I can’t say the pace has changed since then, if anything it has increased.
The overlooked sector?
Even though independent providers outnumber the traditional providers in the sector, in general we are much smaller institutions, and our voices are not heard as much. I don’t believe many of us will have public relations departments or policy institutes, though membership to external groups such as Independent HE can certainly help us join the conversation.
Software companies often overlook us as a market, and the large student records systems are often way too complicated for our needs and far out of our price bracket. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a weakness, as having the scale and opportunity to create your own systems means you can be more flexible and change things much faster. It also makes you learn about the sector both more broadly and deeply. I have now completed two AP Student returns, and I not only know all about the data fields required for that, but have also learned how to code a system to generate the XML file for me. I generate management statistics for all areas of Futureworks, nearly all of which come from systems I have built myself from scratch.
Excellence is everywhere
Excellence in the private sector is far less visible and high achievers like Futureworks (the first privately-owned provider to achieve the highest possible number of commended judgements by the Quality Assurance Agency as part of the Higher Education Review since it was introduced in 2013) are often overlooked. However, this part of the sector is very innovative, and able to test out new ideas relatively quickly.
We are held to the same standards of quality, and while a lot of the financial arrangements for student funding encourages conformity in terms of course length and patterns, when you are in the classroom on one of our courses it can feel very different. Small class sizes can have a huge impact on student success, and we are able to provide a more individual level of support to our students simply by actually knowing them as individuals. I spend most of my days tied to a computer wrangling data, but even I know a few students to say hello to in the corridor and stop to find out how they are getting on. That personal level of interaction just doesn’t happen in larger institutions.
There are many independent providers in this sector, and each one varies in terms of size, specialism, location and outlook, but – as I discovered when I was on a panel at Wonkfest with people from three other emerging institutions – we do have much in common. We all experience difficulties with keeping up with the changing regulatory environment; we have all had to find ways to achieve huge things with only small teams of people to help, and we all firmly believe that we have something valuable to offer to our students and communities.