This week, government ministers are pushing ahead with plans to expand opportunities for private providers to become universities. This has caused panic as many fear it will cause an American style catastrophe.
Many college officials, including Alison Wolf, a spokesperson for King’s College London, fear that not only will it lead to chaos but will also reduce the quality of teaching creating a mass of useless degrees.
“All the evidence is that when you take off the cap and you write a blank cheque from the government you get dramatic expansion, and if you also make it easy for for-profit institutions to pile into that space the expansion will be even greater. We’ve already got a situation where the cost of student loans that are not going to be repaid is spiralling.”
The current legislation to obtain a university title is rigorous, putting forward a regulatory framework as to retain the exclusivity of universities. The importance of a university title is especially prominent with overseas students, as a title greatly boosts applications.
The number of students studying at alternative providers has grown from 6,600 in 2010-11 to about 60,000 in 2015. A 2014 National Audit Office report warned that thousands of students enrolled at such colleges were not registered to take recognised exams and that bogus students were using colleges as a “cash point” to access loans.
As a response to this, the government introduced ad hoc regulatory changes to clamp down on such practices. However critics warn their work will be undone as the future bill looks set to weaken requirements.
Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education stated the following: “My worry is that it’s all about accelerating the processes and not building them in a way to boost quality and student experience overall,”
A recent green paper suggested that the time restrictions of obtaining a university title could be reduced to between five and six years, from the current eight to nine years.
McGettigan said that the last expansion of private providers under the coalition amounted to a public policy disaster. “Over a billion pounds went to students and colleges for what looks like very little return. No one really knows how many qualifications were achieved.”
Both for-profit and not-for-profit universities commented on the new legislation plans. Non-profit universities are worried that the time and effort spent perfecting degree courses and teaching will be wasted as more students will opt for the profit churning organisations due to their university titles.
A Department for Business, Innovation & Skills spokesman said: “We are consulting on a range of options to increase choice for students and encourage greater focus in universities on teaching quality and employability. Enabling more high-quality providers to enter the sector will help to extend higher education in areas that currently lack provision”.