Liam Burns the NUS president, told the independent on Monday “We want MPs, the Government and vice-chancellors to come clean on what’s going on in the HE sector.”. “Coming clean”, “on what’s going on” is not the most inspiring slogan for a mass mobilisation, however it is bang on the money. “Coming clean”, is exactly the opposite of what many of the worst universities have on their mind, higher education is being screwed over by the back door and nobody will know until it is far too late.
Private providers; a nightmare coming in through the back door
Private providers are a death sentence for quality education. Professor Howard Hotson from the campaign for the public university analyses at length how private universities in America are taking short cuts and offering “subprime” degrees. These degrees which are worth nothing, only offering nothing but the illusion of quality and instead of actually teaching are making millions for the universities private owners. They are aggressively marketed with huge campaigns amounting to as much as 25% of the universities expenditure. Such a system entering the UK would be a nightmare; money would be thrown away into the pockets of the rich owners or on flashy marketing campaigns.
The recent withdrawal of the white paper as a bill to parliament has meant that private providers will not be allowed to have degree awarding powers. When the bill was dropped some thought the bullet had been dodged. However these private providers can still enter the UK now through the back door, as they will able award degrees in collaborative provision with established universities who will actually grant the degrees for the courses they run. This should be fine as long public universities ensure that any private universities they collaborate with don’t cut any corners in terms of educational standards. Any private university that is allowed to cut corners will be able to out compete their public rivals, so it important that universities don’t start accrediting degrees to companies doing this as it would allow the companies offering subprime degrees to come flooding into the UK sector.
Traitors in the academy; what are they up to
There is a battle going on to ensure this doesn’t happen. Universities UK, which democratically represents all UK universities, is recommending1 that the role of the Quality Assurance Agency is tightened and strengthened. Specifically they recommend the requirement to make sure that any public universities using their degree awarding powers in collaboration with a private provider is strengthened so that private providers are put through real scrutiny by the public partner.
Essentially the QAA needs more teeth to ensure that the private partners, in public private collaborations are not cutting corners. If this doesn’t happen the private sector is going to be allowed to fraudulently move in and ruin half of the UK university sector, and then make huge profits from giving tens of thousands of people a worthless education. The Quality Assurance Agency for higher education recently put out a proposal to give themselves new powers to require collaborations between universities and private companies, which would mean universities accrediting private courses with degrees would have to publish the facts about what the private company is actually offering. On this issue they ran a public consultation called information provision by universities2.
However not all universities are playing the team game to protect the public education system. Some are happy to sell out their counterparts down the river in anticipation of a useful income provided by offering accreditation services because of a deep managerial buy in to the idea of privatised free market in education.
There is significant pressure to allow university to accredit private companies with their degrees, without any real checks. The University of Birmingham responses to the QAA consultation on “information” is revealing and shows the university is joining in with this pressure. The strongest worded segment in the entire response is on the issue of information provision when collaborating with a private provider.
In response to Indicator 5 (page 7) “Full and up to date information on the program of study is provided to current students at the start of the program and at appropriate intervals throughout their studies.”, Which is supplemented with a further statement further down page 7,“It is sound practice that a provider who operates on several campuses or collaborates with partners details how students’ learning is supported on each site.”
The University of Birmingham responded surprisingly candidly with this statement: – “with reference to the statement that “It is sound practice that a provider who operates on several campuses or collaborates with partners details how students’ learning is supported on each site.” We do not believe it reasonable, or practical to expect an awarding institution to set out in its own information details of the process support etc. with exist in other collaborative organizations. In practice a web link to the collaborative institutions website would provide information and ensure it is up to date”
All they want to do is put a hyperlink to the private providers own sharp, well marketed website. They don’t want to host any information themselves on the actual quality of the education people will receive from these private providers, there is no guarantee any checks will even take place.
Throwing half the sector to the wolves
These private providers are not a threat to the elite of UK universities which have massive budgets and well established reputations. Their cheap courses that offer the illusion of quality with massive marketing campaigns will be able to buy out or drive under the other good universities which are not in UK “elite” cohort.
In response to the white paper Cambridge University (page 11, point 37), said they were afraid that private providers could run at a loss to drive their public competitors under; the government has made it clear that it will allow universities to fail, so what is stopping private companies from “cannibalizing” the market?
What we could well see is the public universities in the UK at the lower end of the league table, which offer courses of real tangible value being replaced by private providers who are only offering the illusion of value. These universities don’t have the established reputation of the elite UK “Ivy league” to protect them. They run the risk of despite offering better quality courses of being out competed and out marketed by cheaper private providers which can run at a loss to drive their better public rivals under. It is just so happens that the same elite universities which aren’t really threatened by these subprime degree companies are also the least accessible to anyone coming from a poorer background.
Flashy marketing campaigns will allow private providers to get away with offering the illusion of quality because unlike the public sector there won’t be any watch dogs to hold them to account, collect statistics or regulate3. So if the public partner awarding the degrees won’t give them scrutiny then no one will.
If this is allowed to happen we will create a truly two tiered education system with a well a funded valuable UK “Ivy league” for the rich and a set of subprime institutions run by private providers offering the illusion of quality for everyone else.
At a time when many universities, academics and students are clubbing together to defend our excellent public education system, others like David Eastwood’s University of Birmingham are actively taking part in the attack. Helping usher in the private sector through the back door into a market where without any public scrutiny they will be able to out drive under their public rivals – public rivals offering decent degrees where any profits made get reinvested back into the university to benefit future generations, rather than to line the pockets of the rich.
- page 7 of “Universities UK the growth of private and for profit HE providers in the UK”.
- QAA: Information about higher education provision page http://www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Documents/Quality-Code-Part-C-Information-about-higher-education-provision.pdf
- page 32 “of Universities UK the growth of private and for profit HE providers in the UK.”