Leader: Journey into the unknown

At the South Pole, David Willetts will have seen blank expanses that are better known than the private sector he wants to grow

March 1, 2012

David Willetts was in high spirits at a dinner at the Guildhall, London, last week, joking that the dinner-suited dignitaries reminded him of emperor penguins after his recent trip to Antarctica and pledging support for researchers who felt abandoned on "that other desolate continent, 'grant-arctica'".

In a move that will shock Poppleton University, he also assured those celebrating the Queen's Anniversary Prizes for Higher and Further Education that "we in government fully understand the difference between a university and a sausage machine".

The assurance is welcome and his desire to engage with the sector genuine - who among his predecessors would have spent a trip to the South Pole penning a response to What Are Universities For?, Stefan Collini's new book (a response that graces our opinion pages this week)? But Mr Willetts' thoughtfulness and public proclamations do not let him off the hook over the serious questions that remain about the coalition's higher education reforms.

Our cover story considers the UK's private higher education providers, which the government has placed centre stage - despite knowing alarmingly little about them. As Aaron Porter, former president of the National Union of Students, puts it, "lumping them all together" makes no sense because some offer students an experience outstripping that provided by their public counterparts while others are "almost purely driven by profit".

Yet the government seems only belatedly to have realised that it needs to know more about the "alternative providers" upon which it is relying to boost competition and choice. In a research strategy published last month, which includes a declaration that it has "always valued" the importance of evidence-based policymaking, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says it is estimated that about 1 per cent of UK higher education provision now takes place in the private sphere.

It adds that "beyond some basic statistical information...very little is known about private providers, the courses they offer, the types of students studying there, and their motivations, experiences or outcomes".

The government is commissioning research to address this, but if BIS admits that "very little is known" about private providers, how can it, in good conscience, have promised to ease restrictions on degree-awarding powers and university title, and to create a "level playing field" between the private- and public-funded sectors? It sounds less White Paper, more leap in the dark.

Although discussion of the "private sector" is common, our feature makes clear the important distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit operators. Some of the former are impressively attentive to the student experience, but Mr Willetts does not seem to have tackled the question of why we need more higher education provided by them.

And as the BIS logs of his meetings show, it is the for-profits - including some big US corporates - that are courting him most keenly, rather than the not-for-profits.

Mr Willetts told diners at the Guildhall that it was important not to "turn diversity into hierarchy". But levelling the playing field without first understanding who the players are gives the impression that the government has once again put the sled before the husky.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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