If history tells us anything, it is that there are no wholly new questions in education policy. There are just different answers.
One old question is how we enable new entrants without sacrificing quality. One answer is for new institutions to partner with old ones. For example, degree-awarding institutions can “validate” what goes on elsewhere – as the Council of Validating Universities, which is meeting today in Manchester, knows better than anyone.
But there are other answers too. Yesterday, the pendulum swung away from the validation model. In his third big speech as the universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, said the validating model “is quite frankly anti-competitive”.
This has been interpreted as meaning a new body could award degrees for students at colleges and private providers – perhaps akin to the old Council for National Academic Awards, which oversaw the polytechnics. It is not hard to see why the minister’s words have been read this way. The Association of Colleges called last year for “a technical accreditation council to accredit colleges and others who want to award higher technical and vocational qualifications. Colleges presently have to choose from 140 universities to offer HE. This is time-consuming and expensive.”
Yet, given the lack of focus that Whitehall has traditionally given the college sector, I can’t help thinking Jo Johnson’s commitment is informed more by another part of the education sector: those institutions that were once called “private colleges” before becoming “alternative providers” and which the government now describe as “challenger institutions”.
Textual criticism of Jo Johnson’s speech proves the point. The single most memorable line was one comparing current validation arrangements “to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”.
Such food-based analogies do not stem from the further education sector, but they have been rife among alternative providers. For example, in a collection of essays the Higher Education Policy Institute published back in February, Matthew Batstone, the co-founder and director of AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities, wrote:
“If I wanted to launch a new chocolate bar and you said, ‘Please do, but only if Mars Bar says it’s OK...and, by the way you must pay Mr Mars a large sum of money each year for the privilege’, the absolute unfairness would be manifest. Yet this is the system we have in higher education.”
Similarly, Times Higher Education recently reported that Paul Kirkham of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance had compared the current rules to forcing small grocers to ask Tesco for the right to trade.
Delivering a degree is more complicated than making a burger or a Mars Bar, but opposition to liberalisation risks coming across as existing institutions wanting to pull the ladder up after them. Surely there should be room for further expansion and further innovation in a vibrant higher education system?
Running a good quality alternative provider has too often felt like competing in a lengthy obstacle course in which the rules keep changing at short notice. Concurrently, some dodgy providers have been able to get away with behaviour that risks tarnishing the whole sector. When the good institutions struggle and the bad ones have an easy time, much has to change.
But we need to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some advantages in the validation model that we should not give up lightly, including: fostering a true sense of partnership; providing an opportunity for institutions to cooperate and learn from one another; and perhaps, most importantly, ensuring learners end up with a qualification that is understood and trusted by employers because it has the stamp of another institution.
It is model that has been tried and tested time and time again. Indeed, every single English and Welsh university founded between the mid-19th and mid-20th century started off offering courses that led to a degree from the University of London.
When I was in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as David Willetts’ special adviser, we wrestled with getting the balance right between insisting some institutions taught qualifications owned by others and enabling institutions to stand on their own two feet by making the route to degree-awarding powers smoother (without lowering the quality bar). In a diverse and expanding sector, a little bit of both is probably the most sensible way to go.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.