When owners change, keep check on powers (1 of 2)

April 26, 2012

The news that a private equity group has purchased the private not-for-profit College of Law (The week in higher education, 19 April) raises again the question of whether there should be stricter controls when a not-for-profit is taken over by a for-profit. This sort of transaction raises major public policy issues for those concerned with maintaining academic standards against commercial pressures of the kind recently experienced in the US.

Although most university and college governing bodies delegate the application of degree-awarding powers to senates or academic boards, it is the council or board of governors, as the supreme authority within each institution, that remains formally responsible for said powers and ultimately determines the conditions under which they are exercised.

It is our firm conviction that when, in cases of sales or takeovers, an institution is replaced by another, and whatever the corporate structure of the purchaser, the new owner should undergo the same process of scrutiny as the previous applicant had to undergo. This does not seem to have applied when BPP College was purchased by Apollo Group a couple of years ago; it is not yet clear whether it will apply in this latest case. It is particularly important because the College of Law is the first of the post-2004 providers with degree-awarding powers to be undergoing scrutiny for the renewal of its powers.

When the question of the behaviour of US for-profits has been raised with him, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has referred to the relatively more relaxed American regulatory regime. Yet in the US, it is usual for any college or university that changes ownership to lose its accreditation, although its new owners can of course reapply.

Perhaps this is one area where we might benefit from following US regulatory practice.

Roger Brown, Professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University

Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history, University of Buckingham

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