The sector is seeing more partnership provision than ever before

There's four providers in England that contracted out more than ten thousand full time undergraduates each in 2021-22

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Judging by the number of emails I get about the topic, there is a huge amount of interest in the recent growth in contracted-out (where a provider develops a course that is delivered elsewhere) and validated (where a provider validates a course that is developed and delivered elsewhere) provision.

I’ve just had chance to visualise the numbers from 2021-22, drawing on the OfS size and shape dataset, and we can see four providers – Buckinghamshire New University, Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of Suffolk, and  Anglia Ruskin University – contracting out or validating more than full time undergraduate 10,000 students. The first three of these four now have substantially more students studying elsewhere than studying on their own campus.

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There’s all kinds of reasons to do this – it can be a way to reach out to prospective students in underserved areas, allowing students to study while remaining in their own community. It can be a way to support provision delivered in partnership with employers or other agencies, allowing for enhanced work-based learning. And it can also be a source of income – sub-contracting providers generally topslice a proportion of fee income, and validating providers may charge a flat or per-student fee. These are all students who wanted to access higher education and who may otherwise be unable to.

Subcontracting in particular has seen a huge amount of growth in recent years – from a little over 30,000 full time undergraduate students in 2018-19 the total students involved in England for 2021-22 is now more than 90,000. Looking at the annual reports of the top four above suggests that this may be reaching a peak (BNU, for instance, reports a 2 per cent reduction in 2022-23) but the demand is clearly there from students.

The principal issue raised with such activity is one of academic quality. Providers who contract out or validate provision elsewhere are responsible for assuring the quality and standards of what is on offer in the same way that on-campus and other direct teaching is assured – those carrying out the teaching may not themselves be subject to Office for Students regulation. It’s an area that OfS has expressed a keenness to get to grips with as part of wider quality assurance activity – and from the next iteration this size and shape data will include information on who is carrying out this contracted out and validated teaching.

2 responses to “The sector is seeing more partnership provision than ever before

  1. Does anyone actually have full data on the true number of validated students? Purely validated students won’t be returned by the validating body, and if the delivery organisation isn’t OfS registered, they won’t be returned there either.

    Presumably, there’s a whole subcategory of students studying degree awards with non-registered providers who nobody knows about? Is anyone even required to report all such partner relationships now (and if so, to whom)?

    1. There is not, to my knowledge, a complete dataset of validated provision and this is a gap in the OfS data landscape that I would expect them to want to plug soon. The hole is not quite as big as you think as the OfS can access data on all students at FE colleges in England so those students are known about even if the provider is not registered.
      Given that the OfS has said that the registering provider is responsible for quality and standards (which to my mind are very different things, but don’t get me started) the risks to registered providers of sub-contracting or validating are significant and should not be entered into lightly.

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