Being independent does not mean standards are lower

James Seymour says it is unfair to tar all private providers with the same brush following revelations of admissions fraud at one college

December 4, 2017
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The recent BBC Panorama programme, which unearthed unethical procedures relating to admissions practices in some institutions, was deeply disturbing. It highlighted a case where an education agent offered to get students admitted into a private college in exchange for £200. For £1,500 a year, the agent would then help with faking attendance records and completing assignments..

Those involved have rightly been swift to take action to root out wrong-doing. But we should remember that this is only one side of the story. 

The vast majority of HE providers comply with the rules, are proud to have good reports from the Quality and Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). We go to great lengths to ensure that we are compliant with all the necessary regulations required to run a university within the letter of the law. 

There have been some suggestions in the press and on social media that the unethical procedures of the sort unearthed by Panorama occur mainly at institutions run by private providers - but we do not believe that this is the case. My own university, Buckingham, which is an independent university with a Royal Charter and charitable status, is required to adhere to the same strict standards on quality assurance. We have QAA visits and reviews in the same way as our publicly-funded counterparts. 

We universally submit Hesa statistical returns on issues such as student completion, entry standards, employability and entry from under-represented groups. It is a level playing field with the same standards across the board. 

Although we adhere to the rules, our independence enables us to be innovative, and achieve the highest standards. Buckingham pioneered two-year honours degrees in the 1970s, and remains the market leader with enrolments up by more than 25 per cent this year.  

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, has understood the benefits of two-year degrees and wants more institutions to offer them. Our model has proved successful, and we received a Teaching Excellence Framework "gold" award. A Times Higher Education table published in June ranked Buckingham at the top based on the metrics used in the TEF. We have also been at or near the top of the National Student Survey (NSS) for student satisfaction since we joined the NSS around a decade ago. Far from standards being lower outside the state sector we are leading the way when ranked against all HE providers in a number of fields. 

At a time of "snowflake students" and "safe spaces", we are also doing our best to ensure high standards when it comes to free speech. Buckingham has twice been ranked top of the University free speech league tables by website Spiked. We are known for allowing all those who speak without breaking the law to air their views – "Brexiteers" and "Remainers" are encouraged in equal measure. We have a clear identity - Buckingham was set up on the ethos of free thinking.

All in all having independence from the state sector does not mean that standards are lower – in fact we believe that the freedom to innovate can lead to the best possible experience for students in their learning and living environments.

James Seymour is director of admissions and recruitment at the University of Buckingham.

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