Against private provider revisionism
Despite what you might have read in the papers today, you don’t need to look to the USA or Australia to learn some lessons about loose regulation around alternative HE providers. England 2010-2015 provides more than enough evidence to suggest that funding outfits with little or no track record of undergraduate teaching is likely to lose money and create the conditions for malpractice.
Below is a set of links to various case studies in regulatory failings. I haven’t worked in any detail on this area since 2014 but my work back then initiated the Public Accounts Committee hearings and National Audit Office investigation (which I briefed). Their findings were damning and it’s still a surprise to me that heads didn’t roll in BIS.
Margaret Hodge, then PAC Chair, greeted the NAO report by saying:
“The Department went ahead with its reforms to expand the role of private colleges without ensuring there were controls in place to ensure that taxpayers’ money was used for its intended purpose of supporting higher education and not for private gain.”
We still haven’t been told how many qualifications were achieved between 2011 and 2014 for the £1billion plus that was loaned and granted to undergraduate students at alternative providers. This summer, HESA published some experimental statistics on 2014/15. These weren’t too informative but did shed some light on the continuing problems with HNCs and HNDs. (NAO found that in 2013/14 20% of HNC/HND students who were awarded public funding were never even registered with Pearson.)
In 2014/15, there were 22 605 students on HNC/HND (9 485 first years; 13 120 second years and over). 4 295 qualifications were achieved. HESA don’t differentiate here between the HNC award – 1 year full-time – or the HND – 2 years full-time. Even if we assumed that they were all the higher award that’s a pretty terrible completion rate for the second years. (It’s also worth noting that these HNC/HND numbers collapsed from over 40 000 in 2013/14 and we haven’t been told what outcomes were achieved prior to 2014/15).
So a lot of money has been spent for little return. No one seemed geared up to take responsibility for the outlay on loans and grants: Pearson did not record whether students were full-time funded students and the QAA had no remit to assess whether the providers it was visiting offered ‘value for public money’. For more detail on the regulatory and communication failings see my THE article ‘Uncontrolled Expansion’, which also details how QAA gave the benefit of the doubt to a failing provider with little HE experience.
For more detail on various kinds of malpractice, you can chase up the Guardian’s Cashpoint College series which was the result of a four-month investigation conducted by myself, Shiv Malik and John Domokos.
“Private sector and students profit at the college they call ‘the ATM'” (21 May)
“Empty classrooms expose flaws in private colleges boom” (21 May)
“Watchdog to investigate private colleges’ potential misuse of millions” (22 May)
If you are someone who’s convinced by the current line that, for all that, the ‘sky didn’t fall in’, then you should take some time to consider the following student stories and testimonies.
The government sent bailiffs to reclaim maintenance grants wrongly repaid to students whose only mistake was to enrol with ICE Academy on a “campus” for which it did not have designation.
If you want a bit salacious detail, here’s the Telegraph’s account of a trial in Romania of a student who got onto an HNC course despite being illiterate. His trial centred on accusations that he had used this college to run a prostitution smuggling ring.
I could go on. But I’ll finish with the government briefing paper which summarised the situation facing the then-yet-to-be-published plans for English HE. 2010-2015 had been marked by ‘fraudulent claims’ (involving students and institutions) and “very high drop-out rates (one of the few proxies we have of bad provision)”.
The government’s insistence on accelerating the process by which new providers enter the funded system runs against all the evidence we have accrued. Even if new powers such as the ability to enter premises are needed to fight malpractice, it’s more telling that many of the colleges involved in the examples above are still in receipt of public funding through their students’s loan-backed fees.
For more on the White Paper’s proposals on alternative providers (not all of which need primary legislation via the Higher Education & Research Bill) see a pair of 2016 articles for wonkhe.