UK higher education must beware of going too far with privatisation

The less rigorous oversight of foundation courses at private providers poses a risk to the UK’s reputation for quality, says Zahid Naz

June 12, 2024
Replica McDonalds brand in art gallery to illustrate privatisation of HE
Source: Alamy

The Conservative Party’s recent election pledge to prioritise apprenticeships over “rip-off” university degrees exemplifies the profound shift in the way education and its role in society is increasingly being viewed.

In the neoliberal policy landscape, universities are increasingly perceived as service providers rather than centres of intellectual enquiry that empower students to engage in critical thought. And like other service providers, universities have begun outsourcing some of their “services”.

That is particularly true of foundation and pre-master’s programmes, which are increasingly being offered in close collaboration with for-profit private providers. The proliferation of such preparatory courses has the potential to broaden access to higher education while shoring up universities’ emptying coffers. But it also poses serious reputational risks.

The University and College Union has expressed concerns about the increasing privatisation of British higher education, particularly regarding the transfer of core university functions to partnerships, joint ventures or other enterprises involving private sector providers. One example is foundation years. While comprehensive data on enrolment in private providers’ foundation programmes remains elusive, a 2023 British Council research report leveraging data from Ucas and the Higher Education Statistics Agency highlights that universities’ in-house foundation programmes operate on a significantly smaller scale.

While both international foundation year (IFY) and international year one (IYO) programmes aim to prepare students for university study, a key distinction exists. IFYs typically provide an additional year of English language and study skills development alongside subject-specific content at Level 3; IYOs, often offered by private providers and some universities, lead students directly into the second year of a bachelor’s degree course. The latter, in particular, are often aggressively marketed to international students as a cost-effective shortcut, and passing the course requirements can be depicted as something of a formality.

Traditional universities have a role that goes beyond merely delivering courses and providing services. They have a long and distinguished legacy of knowledge creation and dissemination. Their commitment to quality is driven by highly qualified academics who contribute their expertise to various internal governing bodies, such as education committees, ethics panels and exam and programme boards. These frameworks are further strengthened by a well-established culture of peer review, a rigorous system of professional scrutiny and critical feedback, creating a culture of professional accountability and academic robustness.

Individual academics’ status as active researchers in the vanguard of their fields puts them in a strong position to evaluate the content and delivery of the foundation programmes they oversee. Universities’ capacity and motivation to ensure that those programmes seamlessly align with degree offerings is further strengthened by the frequent involvement of in-house foundation faculty in degree programme delivery and their close collaboration with degree programme faculty.

Private providers may struggle to replicate this ingrained quality assurance owing to a potentially less established academic culture. Universities stipulate what students need to achieve on foundation programmes to meet the entry requirements for degree courses in terms of grades and English language levels, and I am aware of no evidence of any unsuited students progressing on to degrees from foundation programmes. However, neither universities nor quality regulators have any regular oversight of the quality of delivery, assessment marking and feedback processes at private providers.

For instance, Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) reviews (now taken over by the Office for Students in England), report on academic quality and standards usually by reviewing student work samples and feedback practices. However, while QAA inspectors do meet with students and teachers, in my experience, its reviews do not involve direct observation of teaching, learning and assessment practices. By contrast, Ofsted’s reviews of schools and further education colleges encompass classroom observations, and if providers are deemed inadequate, they risk closure.

This is a concern because the primary obligation of any private enterprise is to maximise profits for shareholders and reduce costs. And while mainstream universities are themselves increasingly focused on their bottom lines, private providers’ sharper focus on profit can sometimes lead to recruitment and marketing practices that operate within what the New York Times has called the “opaque corners of the British education system”.

In January, for instance, the UK’s Sunday Times alleged that IFYs and IYOs were being sold to overseas students as a way on to UK university courses with lower grades than domestic applicants. Those allegations prompted the QAA’s current review of academic standards on international foundation programmes.

But the review’s ability to focus attention on the question of quality in private colleges is compromised by the fact that its scoping document does not explicitly draw a distinction between universities’ in-house programmes and those offered by private providers. Notably, the final report will not identify individual institutions, either.

More generally, the UK’s rapidly expanding private investment in tertiary education – already high compared with European Union and OECD averages – is not receiving the close scrutiny it demands to ensure that we don’t inadvertently end up with an over-reliance on private entities within the existing, well-developed public system.

To say the least, a McDonaldised system, prioritising profit and service delivery through efficiency, predictability and calculability, is unlikely to enhance the reputation of the UK’s tertiary education system.

Zahid Naz is lecturer in academic and professional education at Queen Mary University of London.

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