John Gill, in today’s THE, is right to underscore the limited relevance of New College of Humanities. I argued this a year ago in an article for Open Democracy, ‘First as Farce’: the conclusions there are further confirmed with the news that NCH will not have ‘trusted sponsor’ status and so, for the time being, will be unable to bring non-EU students into the country to study.
Gill is also right to finish his editorial with a call to be clearer on the difference between for-profit and charitable private providers. Education debates are overshadowed by health here and the terms of the latter are not always a good fit for the former. I have tried to set out the meanings of ‘privatisation’ in education here.
But there are three important points to remember.
The government’s whole HE reform is designed to ‘create a level playing field’ for private providers. This is why block grant was removed in entirety from Band C and Band D subjects (arts, humanities, social sciences, etc). This is the main market reform and drove higher fees. From the point of view of private providers, that change removed a subsidy to established universities which had rendered private undergraduate fees uncompetitive in the home market. Similarly, students at private providers are increasingly gaining access to public funding to support their study.
Further, it is one thing to recommend the use of private institutions to increase capacity so as to meet unmet demand for undergraduate study. This was Browne’s proposal: he wanted to see overall caps on student recruitment lifted.
This is not what we have from the coalition. We have a different form of market: with more providers but the same number of students we have an intensified zero sum game. In addition, many established universities will be labouring under the new core/margin scheme with its continued use of institution-specific limits on recruitment of certain students (below AAB) – the core. This is the tenor of Pam Tatlow’s letter in today’s THE:
‘The real risk is that students will lose out if there is a cap on the overall number of students who are funded and places are transferred to private providers.’
Gill ignores number controls. But it is the framework which determines the impact of the entry of alternative providers into the state funded (backed) higher education system.
Finally, we shouldn’t ignore the very real capacity of some private providers to expand rapidly given the deep pockets of their backers (were numbers controls to relax). This is especially true of companies limited by shares. The government still plans to give Pearson degree awarding powers. For-profit and with an overall market capitalisation of roughly $10billion, it would have the potential to cause real disruption to established provision.
The latter is Gill’s ‘dangerous hornet’ but NCH’s ‘bee’ is far from benign if its buzzing distracts us.