Comment: The coalition’s found a new way of stifling higher education

By Professor Stephen Lee

Across the world there are many different types of university. Some are public institutions. Some are private. And as the global higher education system has expanded, there has been a blurring between non-profit and for-profit providers. While higher education remains an undisputed 'public good', the way that universities are financed and governed is increasingly varied.

The higher education system in England has followed this global trend. Over the last decade we have seen a steady, if relatively small, stream of private and charitable sector providers emerge and operate alongside the still-dominant public sector universities.

These 'alternative providers' do much to advance government aspirations on widening access to higher education. They often provide students with highly specialised programmes, as well as flexible entry and lower costs. At time when public universities in England are racing to charge students £9,000 a year three or four times over, alternative providers like GSM London are offering flexible degrees at £6,000 a year.

GSM also does much for social mobility. The majority of its students are from minority ethnic backgrounds and 80% come from within a ten-mile radius of campuses in east and south London. Most of its students are from low-income families, and around a third are parents of young children.

The coalition government has broadly supported the role of alternative providers. It wants greater choice and competition among universities, and regulation that ensures quality for students and fair treatment of institutions. Indeed, its 2011 white paper proposed regulatory change supported by primary legislation.

Little has happened however. The coalition appears to have lost some of its radical resolve, caught up in the mire of endless debate around tuition fees. The Labour party has declined to talk about market reform in higher education and has said very little about regulation. Yet there is no doubt that the current regulatory framework is riddled with flaws. It was, after all, designed for a world in which every university was firmly in the public sector.

One example of alternative providers getting a raw deal concerns student intake: whereas public institutions are set to benefit from the removal of the student numbers cap from 2015/16, restrictions on the number of students alternative providers can recruit have been retained at 2012/13 levels or below. If students want to go to these institutions, why limit them?

Another example is the imposition of a traditional university model of governance and quality assurance. The alternative providers I have spoken to say this "lacks applicability, economic viability and effectiveness" in the context of a diverse sector. Or to put it another way, regulation is forcing them to behave more like a traditional university when their strength lies in being different – in offering an alternative to students.

CentreForum's new report calls on the next government to implement a common regulatory framework for all higher education institutions in England. Our proposed framework would include equal treatment in regulation balanced by a strong focus on quality assurance. If institutions fail, let them. It does little good for anyone, not least students, to let them struggle on. And if alternative providers meet the best standards of quality assurance, financial sustainability, management and governance, they should be free to flourish.

The end goal should be a regulatory system in higher education that is ownership-agnostic. Public, private, non-profit, for profit: surely the thing that really matters is the quality of courses being offered to students?

Professor Stephen Lee is chief executive of CentreForum and author of the report 'Access and equity: positing alternative providers in higher education provision'

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