The history of the UK higher education sector is one of expansion and diversification, driven by proven quality.
In 1992, polytechnics became universities. In 2007, further education colleges were permitted to award two-year foundation degrees. In 2011, some university colleges were enabled to become universities. And, most recently, a handful of high-quality private providers were given the opportunity to do the same.
So we have not had a static market of providers. The government is trying to build on this legacy with its announcement of a higher education bill that will fast-track the creation of yet more universities. But the undignified rush to drive market competition at all costs risks dismantling the hard-won reputation of our university system.
The proposals will see providers with no track record of delivering higher education offering full degrees from day one. If, after three years, nothing too catastrophic happens, they will be given degree-awarding powers in perpetuity. There will be no baseline student number requirement for the award of university title, raising the possibility of “universities” with fewer than 100 students. These proposals are fundamentally different from what has gone before, and arguably not for the better.
Current arrangements for new providers rely on validation of their degrees by an existing provider, normally an established university of their choice. This ensures that new provision is thoroughly tested by a more experienced institution; often courses are designed and delivered in partnership. Only once the new provider has a proven track record can it seek its own degree-awarding powers.
I was the higher education minister responsible for the legislation that permitted further education colleges to award foundation degrees. The bill was hotly contested by members of the then Conservative opposition, who claimed that the move would devalue degrees in the eyes of employers and other countries. As a result, we agreed to a six-year probationary period for all colleges seeking to award foundation degrees. Yet, 10 years on, the Conservative government is proposing a mere three years of probation for new, untested providers – all in the name of market competition.
The current government’s track record in opening up the higher education system to new providers is patchy at best. As recently as December 2014, the National Audit Office published the results of an inquiry into financial support for students at alternative providers, citing findings that students had accessed support they were not entitled to, that dropout rates at some providers were excessive and that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had stopped payments to some providers, following concerns that students had been wrongly enrolled or that incorrect data about student attendance had been supplied.
Even if we could have confidence in the quality of these so-called challenger providers, there are serious questions about whether current levels of demand for higher education warrant an influx of new provision. The two potential beneficiaries cited in BIS’ press release for the higher education White Paper, University Campus Suffolk and the proposed “New Model in Technology and Engineering” in Hereford, are hardly representative examples of new providers. According to the government’s own research, the majority are not offering expanded higher education opportunities in geographical cold spots: they are pitching at the business and commercial market in London and the South East.
The government has signalled that the loss of an existing provider would be seen as a sign of healthy competition. Yet, in reality, I don’t think this government or any other would allow the closure of a university. The civic, political and economic impact on the institution’s locality would be too great. So the likely overall effect of facilitating the establishment of new providers will be simply to spread resources more thinly.
Moreover, the growth in demand for higher education predicted by the government has not materialised. Economic downturn and higher education fee reforms have led to a sharp downturn in mature and part-time participation. And, among the student body as a whole, the latest interim applicant figures from Ucas show only slight growth in 2015 and a slight fall in 2016. This relates to a decline in the birth rate between 1990 and 2002, resulting in fewer 18-year-olds in the general population: a trend predicted to reach its nadir in 2020.
So the result of the government’s proposed reforms is likely to be a dilution of quality, with providers jostling for a slice of a static or shrinking market, weakening existing successful providers with no net benefit in quality. Every pound spent on marketing is a pound that is not going to support the student experience.
You may say that, as the vice-chancellor of a successful and established provider, I represent vested interests. You could argue that. But that doesn’t make me wrong in expressing legitimate concerns about the speed and direction of travel the government is envisaging.
Bill Rammell is vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire. He was minister for higher education between 2005 and 2008.