For-profit universities ‘break homogeneity of UK higher education’

There is a place for all types of provision in the UK university sector, argues Debi Hayes

June 10, 2016
Identical men with bar codes on a production line
Source: iStock

Reading this blog post on the White Paper, I was struck by just how far removed traditional public universities have become from the reality of private higher education provision today.

It makes a stunning (and offensive) assertion that: “following on from the widening inequality that has come with a global knowledge economy, the White Paper expresses concern for social mobility and seeks to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at the top universities. At the same time, it could radically increase provision by for-profit providers, institutions that, wherever they are found, are associated with poor student outcomes and with spending more on marketing and profit-sharing than on teaching.”

As provost at GSM London, an independent higher education provider that believes passionately in widening participation, I cannot protest loudly enough.

Read next: Alternative providers: growing pains, but a role to play?

The traditional sector is becoming ever more homogeneous and focused on restrictive quality indicators in league tables. Widening participation, however, is is not about ticking boxes. Some 95 per cent of our students are from a black and minority ethnic background, and many are mature students. There is a diversity of backgrounds that means we now strive to fit the model of the student, not the other way around.

It’s only then, when institutions can adapt to their learning, that we can collectively achieve social mobility and inclusion that is sustainable. Through its White Paper, the government has shown its frustration at the traditional university sector’s failure to meet widening access targets. That said, the government’s target equals only 73 more BME students per institution by 2020. 

Of course, public university providers are trying: £735 million is being invested in widening participation across the sector, and, according to a recent Universities UK report, 42 per cent more students from disadvantaged backgrounds were on full-time first degree programmes in 2014 than in 2005.

However, there is still too much focus on just getting those students in; what is crucial is the need to build aspirations, providing high-quality advice, support and guidance for under-represented groups in society, and supporting them as individuals.

We do this by including diagnostics and pre-entry programmes as a means of discerning their ability and ongoing support requirements. This is an expensive undertaking but essential for recruiting with integrity, and that is why some independent providers are investing stretched resources because we are unable to charge a higher fee to cover these additional costs and do not have access to student opportunity funding.

So, my message is that there is a place for all types of provision. GSM London is socially motivated, and our ultimate focus is our students and widening participation. Providers like us can help to shape a higher education system that is fair and accessible to all, and not just a chosen few.

Debi Hayes is provost of GSM London.

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