What is a private university?

What is a private university? The latest big UK HE news is that the not-for-profit Regent’s College has been given the right to use the title “university”, and will become “Regent’s University London”. The Guardian says that it “will become only the second private university in Britain”… which I’m not sure is the case. It is definitely a university. And it is definitely in Britain. But is it private? And does it count as the second one? Well, it depends what you mean by a private university. This post takes a look at what these terms mean, and gathers together details of the recent changes that have taken place primarily in English HE which have muddied waters both public and private.

What counts as a university?

There is a huge volume of writing on this subject – almost an entire field of academic endeavour – and some of it is excellent. But we’ll shortcut all that, because there is now one clear simple answer to this, at least in narrow legalistic terms, which is that an organisation is a university if it is permitted to call itself one under UK legislation. It is not a definition that has the sophistication of a Cardinal Newman (or a Robbins, or even a Dearing), but it is at least an admirably clear line, and there are definitive lists. To be allowed to use the title “university”, there are three criteria:

(1) You have to have degree-awarding powers (which come in three flavours: foundation degrees, taught degrees, and research degrees);

(2) You have to show that you ‘have regard to the principles of good governance as are relevant to your sector; and

(3) You have to have at least 1,000 FTE students, with at least 750 on degree courses.

The old route to calling yourself a university was by permission of the Privy Council, which took advice from the QAA. Now there’s the new route via Companies House, which takes advice from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). There are related rules about the title “university college”.

This is the new, modern, streamlined and almost-coherent system of naming. It is not all perfect. There are several pretty old ‘University Colleges’ that are not quite the same as the new style designation. There’s University Colleges that are constituent colleges of the Universities of Oxford and Durham, and of course London. UCL also prompts us to note several other HEIs that were formerly part of the University of London, at least some of which are now universities in their own right and award their own degrees, but don’t call themselves ‘university’, including KCL, Imperial College London, LSE and SOAS.

In England, organisations that have degree-awarding powers are known as ‘recognised bodies‘ (definitive list). All universities are recognised bodies, but not all recognised bodies are universities.  Then there’s ‘listed bodies‘ (definitive list), which are organisations that are recognised (sorry) as providing bona fide teaching towards degrees awarded by recognised bodies. Things are different in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, of course.

What counts as private?

One important feature of a university – at least, for many people – is that it be independent of the Government. So in a certain sense all universities should be, or aspire to be, private in the sense that they are not owned or controlled by the Government. Certainly David Willetts thinks that universities should consider themselves to be in the private sector. (So perhaps we can look forward to the Government no longer taking a view that pension arrangements and pay restraint in HE should be that of the public sector.) It is, of course, possible to have independent universities that are funded by the Government. It is what we had until very recently, and that’s what most people mean by public universities. What now counts as private?

A for-profit company obviously must count as private, leaving aside the confusions that can arise from publicly-traded companies, plcs, and Government-owned corporations.

But what about not-for-profit organisations?

The traditional definition of a ‘public’ university is one that is mostly funded by public means through government – whether local, regional, state, federal, national or trans-national level (see the United Nations University). Most universities were funded through the government, via various arrangements, most recently the funding councils. However, the new fees regime in England has been described as privatisation, and not entirely unreasonably. The overwhelming majority of university funding in England now comes not from the public, but directly from students in the form of tuition fees. (This will be even more the case once students on the old funding regime have left the system.)

What about eligibility for tuition fee loans, which are Government-backed? Well, students are eligible for tuition fee loans from Student Finance England if they are studying on any ‘designated course‘ (definitive list). All recognised bodies have designated courses – that is, all organisations with degree-awarding powers have courses that are eligible for SFE tuition fee loans. But there are many more designated courses beyond those, including e.g. Pearson HNC/HND programmes and other private outfits teaching qualifications validated by other recognised bodies. So that doesn’t work as a marker.

Having a Royal Charter is even more of a red herring. Most pre-92 universities have one, but some were established by specific Act of Parliament, and Oxford and Cambridge have those special murky formation stories that go with having been established before Royal Charters and Acts of Parliament even existed. Most of the post-1992 universities do not have Royal Charters: they are corporations established by statutory instrument pursuant to the Educational Reform Act 1988. But they are clearly ‘public’ universities if the term carries any weight. And some clearly ‘public’ universities are straight-up companies limited by guarantee, albeit not-for-profit (LSE is one). Having a Royal Charter isn’t a necessary criterion for being a public university It is not even a sufficient condition – the College of Law had a Royal Charter, but didn’t get public funding, and is now the University of Law (though the Royal Charter went with the spin-off Legal Education Foundation – see below).

Charitable status doesn’t work for these purposes either. One might argue that this may come to be seen a key dividing line, but it isn’t yet. Since some tidying up work a few years ago, almost all universities have formal charitable status (with registration numbers etc), although precisely how they came by that status can be a bit involved. But, for instance, the University of Buckingham is and always has been a charity, and most in the sector would describe it as a Buckingham private university, whether or not its students are eligible for SFE loans (they are).

So what is a public university?

You could try to say “historically public universities” or “universities that were public before the tuition fee changes in 2011/12”, but that rules out universities that fit the traditional mould but happen to have been created, merged or granted full university status more recently, which is probably not what you want. There are still funding streams that go only to public universities in England – not least the REF. And there are more obligations on public universities – including student number controls and OFFA etc. When the new arrangements came in, there were rumours of high-profile universities considering “going private”, and escaping from the tighter controls, though none have done so.

To summarise: To be a university, you need to have degree-awarding powers (be ‘recognised’), have the right governance, and at least 1,000 students. All universities, public or private, have ‘designated courses’ eligible for taxpayer-backed student loans. Traditional-style public universities have all sorts of legal structures, but are all charitable bodies. The six other universities so far (listed in the Appendices) are all ‘recognised’ (have degree-awarding powers), and range from charities to for-profit companies owned by private equity. Many people have observed that there is diversity among public universities: there is diversity among the private ones, too.

So what about Regent’s University London?

If I’ve counted right, Regent’s University London will be the third institution that (a) is entitled to call itself ‘university’, and (b) is not a traditionally-public university. The other two are the University of Buckingham, which is a charity, and the University of Law, which is unarguably a for-profit outfit since it was taken over by a private equity firm.

It is worth noting that when BPP – which is a for-profit company – gained its ‘university college’ title in 2011, most press coverage wasn’t very careful about the distinction between ‘university’ and ‘university college’ and called it the first new private university in the UK since the University of Buckingham – and some even left out the ‘since Buckingham’ caveat.

There is always going to be signifiant confusion about this issue, in the press and in policy making which is why I hope this post will prove useful in unravelling it all.

(A note on terms: I have decided to use the slightly-American ‘for-profit’ term, since the more British phrase ‘profit-making’ implies that profit is being made, rather than intended at least as an eventual goal. It seems wrong to describe an organisation that is losing money hand-over-fist as a ‘profit-making company’).

Find appendices to this post here.

8 responses to “What is a private university?

  1. “at least 1,000 FTE students, with at least 750 on degree courses.”
    Does the “university” of Buckingham meet this criterion?
    I’ve been unable to discover an accurate, audited account of student numbers…

  2. Dominic – try HESA (www.hesa.ac.uk), click ‘Institutions’ in the ‘Headline statistics’ panel, then select University of Buckingham. For 2011/12: 1,885 students, of whom 1,260 are undergrads and 625 postgrads.

    It became a University by Royal Charter in 1976, so wasn’t required to go through the current approvals process. If it had needed to, it probably wouldn’t have succeeded on numbers grounds, until last year when the criteria were lowered from 4,000 to 1,000.

  3. “UCL also prompts us to note several other HEIs that were formerly part of the University of London, at least some of which are now universities in their own right and award their own degrees, but don’t call themselves ‘university’, including KCL, Imperial College London, LSE and SOAS.”

    Of those listed, only Imperial has left the University of London – the others are all still constituent colleges, albeit with their own degree awarding powers. Another post on ‘What is the University of London?’ might be required…

  4. @Josh Thanks for the clarification! I would love to read a ‘What is the University of London’ post. Are you volunteering? 🙂

    @Louis You’re welcome. Yes, the system is pretty complex – writing this was my way of trying to get my head round it. I think the regularisation of ‘university’ and ‘university college’ titles has helped simplify things a bit, but the new private providers, funding regime and student number controls make it more complex. And I was leaving aside entirely issues like HE taught in FE, and the arguments about what a university *ought* to be, which are very important and hugely contested.

  5. This is a fascinating line of enquiry, Doug – I have learned a lot about our HEIs, some that had never crossed my radar at all…
    Now, I guess, it’s time to revisit the endless question: What is a university? The definition seems to have moved on a bit since “a community of scholars” was all we needed to know!

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