Alternative Providers & Quality
Last November’s Green Paper set out plans to return to legislation and regulations that govern the regulatory framework for English HE. It now seems clear that the government is planning to implement those changes with a Higher Education Bill that is expected to be announced at the Queen’s Speech on 18 May.
The Observer airs concerns from myself and Prof Alison Wolf alongside those of the Aldwyn Cooper and Carl Lygo, who head up private institutions who have been through the existing processes.
I set out my views at fuller length on wonkhe back in November. But I would reiterate two points here:
- the proposals in the Green Paper propose that you could start up a college and achieve university status within five years. This move is not really about driving up quality but about bringing the processes in line with investment cycles – typically five to seven years for private equity and venture capital.
- the real risk lies with students.
We ‘discover’ the quality of these new initiatives on the backs of the students who sign up. Those students have one shot at full-time undergraduate study backed by the student support system of loans for maintenance and tuition fees. At present, they face punitive measures for making the wrong decisions.
In some cases, bailiffs were sent by Student Loans Company to recover maintenance grants from students, whose only mistake was to study at ICE Academy.
This time last year, BBC 4’s Face the Facts aired an in-depth case study of how one committed student fell foul of the incompetence of another ‘insurgent’.
There is little recognition of the last point in the Green Paper. New entrants may have to exit the market if they fail to deliver – but that can’t be a marker of success if thousands of ‘aspiring students’ have had their, likely only, experience of higher education in a misfiring institution.
The investors and directors may still walk away without losses – the subsidised student loan scheme rewards recruitment, not qualifications achieved – and the government would have what it would regard as a ‘well-functioning market’, but undergraduate courses are not a consumer good.
I can go to the supermarket and choose a different brand if my preferred provider decides to stop producing a product. With undergraduate study in England, I’m allowed in the shop once with my loan-voucher; the second time I face a completely different upfront price. Aiming at a consumer market without addressing that fundamental economic point is nonsensical.
The government talks about students being central and consumer choice driving up quality – but it has to demonstrate that is the case and that it is not rather beholden to investors and a different producer interest. We’ve had one round of alternative provider expansion and it was marked by mis-selling and novel recruitment practices. There’s no evidence that the government wishes to learn from that experience, which forces one to question their motivations.