Will HE reforms incentivise more private universities?
David Willetts, the HE Minister, has held what the Daily Mirror has described as ‘secret’ talks with US private education firms about university reforms. One suspects that he probably didn’t do much to hide the fact that he was talking to private providers. An HE White Paper is expected this month. Expanding the private sector is seen by the government as a way of tackling the chronic financial pressures and lack of places facing the university system. Throughout the world, the number of students in private institutions is growing faster than in publicly-owned ones. The reason is simple: governments cannot afford to pay for the higher education that is required so the private sector has expanded to become “demand absorbing”. With the student population growing to 2.1 million in 2009/10, Universities must be allowed the freedom to expand if they are capable of adequately meeting extra student demand.
Private universities would add extra capacity, when hundreds of thousands of applicants are set to miss out on places. The BIS, in written evidence to the Select Committee, said ‘To ensure a vibrant sector, the Government wants to make it easier for new providers, including local FE colleges and alternative providers, to enter the system on a fair basis. We believe that competition is a great driver of improvement and more providers in the system will mean more and better choice for students and better value for money through new and potentially innovative and lower cost approaches to teaching.’
Unions are worried that the Tories are planning a huge increase in the number of these American-style private colleges. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “It is a disgrace that ministers are contemplating giving taxpayers’ money to these characters while starving our public universities and colleges of funds.
“The potential damage to our higher education system is too dangerous to risk allowing the profiteers in.” Labour’s higher education spokesman, Gareth Thomas, said the US-style colleges would aim to undercut universities by offering cheap degrees taught over the internet. He added: “After trebling tuition fees and getting their higher education sums wrong, now the Tories are set to threaten the quality of our universities with plans to let unregulated for-profit universities expand hugely in the UK.”
The revelation that David Willetts had met the US firms – including Apollo Group Inc and Education Management Corporation – came after Labour MP Barry Gardiner questioned the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Mr Gardiner said: “The clear implication is that the Government is considering privatising our education system.”
Private universities are common in the US but there are currently only two in Britain – Buckingham (not for profit) and BPP in London. The BPP University College receives no money from the higher education funding council. As a private university it is also able to set its own level for tuition fees. BPP already has degree-awarding powers. It has 6,500 students taking courses in its law and business schools and a further 30,000 taking accountancy qualifications. It was the first private university college to have been created since Buckingham in the 1970s, which was first created a university college, and then later became the University of Buckingham.Buckingham University being private(ie independent) cannot access the pool of research funding that is available to other (State) universities. Universities though taxpayer funded, are ‘autonomous’ self-governing institutions but that doesn’t mean that they are immune to pressure from the government , for instance over the level of tuition fees they charge, and how many students they admit from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Buckingham consistently tops student satisfaction surveys, although many of its students are foreign nationals and many of its courses run to just two years, as opposed to the normal three years, as in most other English universities (Scotland tend to have four year courses) . Some reformers believe that two year concentrated courses may be the way forward, at least in some subjects, given the complaints of some students that three year courses are not delivering value for money.
Sally Hunt, leader of the UCU lecturers’ union, has claimed that private providers are not accountable to the public and do not deserve to be put in the same league as other universities. However, Hunt provided no evidence in support of her claims.
If the consumers of the service are happy and the courses meet quality benchmarks, operating in a regulated environment, it is hard to see why private universities should not be allowed to compete for students helping to improve capacity in the HE sector to meet demand, while providing at the same time , more choice.