Universities have faced stiff competition from new institutions in recent years. Today’s higher education system is a rainbow coalition. But the different colours are bleeding into one another.
Take London. There are historic institutions like UCL and the LSE. You can also study for a Royal Holloway degree via the multinational firm Pearson. You can study at the University of Law, Britain’s first for-profit university. You can take a University of London degree in your bedroom, or at the New College of the Humanities in Bloomsbury (if you have a spare £17,814 a year). Or you can attend one of the institutions that have sprung up around the Commercial Road offering HNCs and HNDs.
There is nothing wrong with such a spectrum in principle. Indeed, it offers some welcome diversity. But there are stark anomalies in practice.
Some students have access to a complaints ombudsman; others don’t. At some institutions, tuition loans are limited to £6,000 but fees are uncapped; at others, fees and loans are both capped at £9,000. Some international students may work part-time; others can’t. Some institutions pay VAT; others don’t. Some students are effectively protected against institutional failure; others aren’t.
There are at least six types of institution. In a rough hierarchy of prestige, they start with those teaching off-the-shelf qualifications to UK and EU students. Next come institutions with ‘highly-trusted status’, which means they can have international students from outside the EU too. Third are providers with permission to teach another institution’s degrees. Fourth come institutions which have volunteered for a full quality inspection. Fifth are those with their own degree-awarding powers. Finally, there are institutions with full-blown university status – though they are treated differently depending on whether they are funded by HEFCE or not.
Three years ago, the Government promised one set of rules for all higher education providers. But, coming on top of higher tuition fees, the topic was deemed politically toxic and taken off the table.
The choice now is clear. There is still an argument for having the same rules for all institutions. There is also an argument for a new regime that is equitable, rather than equal, and which reflects different levels of risk. But the case for maintaining the haphazard, messy and illogical status quo has much less rationale.
The Higher Education Policy Institute is today launching a report that looks at these issues in detail and aims to rekindle the debate. The long-term standing of our world-class higher education sector demands policymakers state where they stand.
They must offer a response before the 2015 general election not so much because voters demand it but because the long-term reputation of our higher education sector depends upon it.
Read the full report from HEPI here.