It is easy to dismiss as self-serving the claims of the company hoping to run the UK's first for-profit university that the private sector represents the only realistic hope of achieving 50 per cent participation in higher education. Firms such as Kaplan exist primarily to make money, however professionally they may deliver their courses. This is something alien to Britain's educational culture, although there are many companies selling services to universities. There is an element of truth, however, in remarks made by Kaplan's chief executive that should not be ignored. The lesson from the US, where private universities are well established, is that they do reach students lost to traditional providers.
Should Kaplan (and almost certainly others in its wake) be granted degree-awarding powers, some new universities are bound the feel the draught. The newcomers would arrive just as the pool of 18-20 year-olds was about to begin shrinking and as further education colleges were stepping up the competition for foundation degree students, as outlined in this week's Further Education Bill. Both the colleges and the private institutions will focus their attention on workplace learning, which ministers are keen to promote but which universities have not found easy territory. Colleges will still need university partners if foundation degree students are to be given the opportunity to upgrade their initial qualification, but the ability to offer a ladder of courses to existing students and their strong links with local employers will make them formidable competitors. Foundation degrees may not be the draw that ministers envisaged when they set expansion targets for higher education, but the colleges may give them a lift at a crucial moment.