Private values and for-profit standards (1 of 3)

March 8, 2012

We at Regent's College were delighted by the breadth and depth of the private sector coverage in last week's Times Higher Education ("Enigma variations", 1 March). We share the concern that many institutions offering higher education in the sector are unknown to the Quality Assurance Agency and may be able to avoid oversight if they do not seek to sponsor international students.

Aaron Porter correctly identifies the fact that private provision is diverse. Although it does not explain all the variability, we would suggest that many of the distinctions between private institutions and between them and the state-funded sector stem from whether they are "for-profit" or "not-for-profit".

The first issue is fees. Are the fees quoted headline or average figures? Are financial assistance bursaries or merit scholarships available to boost access? As a registered charity, we are proud of our bursary scheme and intend to extend it year on year.

Second, fees should be judged by the value that students gain for the price they pay. This can be judged in terms of the totality of the student experience, staff-to-student ratios, hours of directed study, the facilities and learning resources on offer, personal tuition and support, language and cultural learning, study-abroad opportunities and - most vital - employability. To provide the best is costly, but the long-term benefits are worthwhile. The extent to which students at any institution can draw Student Loans Company funds should be measured against the value for money gained personally or for the UK economy at large.

Third, the better not-for-profits support research because they recognise its importance in maintaining first-class teaching, especially at the postgraduate level. It also provides the opportunity for global collaboration, with internationalism being not simply a revenue stream but also an essential component of education itself.

Finally, listening to students is crucial for maintaining a first-class system. Like the better state-funded institutions, we have a formal, funded, structured students' union with representation on all committees that makes lively, informed and helpful contributions. It should perhaps be noted that progress in this area was set back by the National Union of Students' former resistance to working with the private sector. However, its leadership is now collaborating with us effectively.

The leaders of private institutions have learned from best practice in the public sector. However, we also have contributions to make and those of us who are not simply profit-driven are happy to share our knowledge.

Aldwyn Cooper, Chief executive and principal, Regent's College

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