Easing entry into the sector for new providers has generated a number of headlines about the potential risk to students, irrecoverable costs to the public purse and erosion of the gold standard of the UK degree. But, as Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive of Independent HE pointed out at a Policy UK event last week , there are over 700 alternative providers already operating in the UK and the sky hasn’t yet fallen in (to paraphrase).
The established sector’s concerns about new entrants are underlined in a recent report published by the Centre for Global Higher Education, ‘The entry and experience of private providers of higher education in six countries’. Whilst acknowledging that private providers can and do make a contribution to widening participation, the study concluded that there was little evidence to suggest that they are contributing to innovation or improved quality of provision. Indeed, it would appear that rather than driving down costs, fees for private provision are often higher than in publicly funded universities and teaching is usually in low cost subjects.
Changes to the status quo in education inevitably spark rigorous debate, and rightly so. There is just too much at stake for us to play around with higher education: we absolutely must be assured that students get the best quality experience, that their learning equips them well for their future, and that they are not laid low by crippling debt which they can never repay. Yet to argue that new provision is the pathway to hell ignores many of the very successful new providers which have brought new opportunities to a much wider group of potential students. Indeed, the Open University was once an ‘alternative provider’, as are the very many FE colleges which now offer more local and employer focussed higher education qualifications.
Calming fears about quality
Where one might take issue with the government’s latest proposals is the idea that it should be possible for a new provider to be immediately granted degree awarding powers. If that were the case, the fears expressed in the GCHE report might quickly become a reality. Harold Wilson claimed to have put together the whole design for the OU between breakfast and lunch but, in fact, it did take quite a bit longer than that, and a considerable amount of work to ensure that the awards students received would be equivalent in every respect to those made by any other university.
So how do we ensure that new entrants are able to provide a higher education experience and outcome that is equal to, or even better than, that already provided in the sector? The OU believes that the answer lies in a high quality validation service, through which a new provider can develop their awards and quality processes, gradually reaching autonomy and being able to clearly demonstrate that trust can be placed in their operation.
The history of the Open University Validation Partnerships (OUVP), formerly OU Validation Services (OUVS), as a service of high standing, is well documented. Following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which removed the binary divide between polytechnics and universities, OUVS took over from the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) to provide a service for those institutions which did not wish to seek university title. The business grew from there. The OU now has thirty partner institutions worldwide, delivering almost 300 programmes to around 40,000 students a year.
The Higher Education and Research Bill tries to address the difficulties raised in the Green Paper that some new providers face in finding validating partners. The Bill proposes that the OfS might appoint a “validator of last resort” in the event that a provider is unable to find a suitable partner. Such a proposition could, and perhaps should, address other criticisms – that providers might find they are dropped suddenly by their partners, that universities sometimes restrict what their validated partners can offer, that there can be uncertainty through lack of longevity in contractual arrangements, that pricing lacks transparency and can be subject to sudden fluctuations.
Rebalancing the validator-provider relationship
This is why the OU is answering the proposition, identified in the Bill, for a validator of “last resort”. We have created a pilot scheme with Independent Higher Education and QAA to create an exemplar validation model for the sector. We aim to further increase the efficiency of validation arrangements, removing barriers to institutions seeking validation whilst still upholding the quality and standards essential for a sustainable and reliable service.
The pilot project aims to position us as validator of choice rather than last resort. But the exemplar model we are working towards must be rigorous and robust and ensure that all providers meet the minimum required standards. We have a world-leading HE sector in the UK and that reputation must be upheld. Equally, having a HE system that tries to protect a monopoly will damage its own future. Whilst we strongly advocate inclusivity and choice, poor quality short-cuts are in nobody’s interest.
The OU’s mission is to be open to people, to places, to methods, and to ideas. The landscape in the HE sector today and the ‘wind of change’ is similar to that which prompted the creation of the OU – fast approaching its 50th anniversary. As our inaugural Chancellor Geoffrey Crowther said at his installation in 1969, “the existing system, for all its expansion, misses and leaves aside a great unused reservoir of human talent and potential”. Whilst we’ve moved on and have reached out to that reservoir there is still long a way to go. This pilot project will help us develop a model to widen provision but in such a way that we ensure students’ interests are always up front.