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

April 26, 2012

Amid all the media coverage of the "sale" of the College of Law, it is worth trying to pin down the issue of degree-awarding powers as the prime concern of the purchaser.

The College of Law as a charitable chartered corporation "sells" these powers, its staff, its students and its reputation/goodwill; the money raised by the sale of such charitable assets has to be redeployed into a newly registered grant-making charity and will be used to fund bursaries and scholarships. Meanwhile, the private equity purchaser will utilise the brand name "College of Law" and crack on as a money-making business (probably one day selling the brand to another for-profit provider so that investors can get a return).

There is nothing worth buying without degree-awarding powers, and doubtless the posh law firms involved will have done all due diligence to ensure that they can indeed change hands. Such powers can be awarded only by the Privy Council as guided by the Quality Assurance Agency and the government; for "real" higher education institutions they are permanent, but for the likes of the College of Law, initially they last for six years.

Either the Privy Council has already agreed to the transfer or the sale is conditional on such permission; or perhaps the view is that the transfer of limited powers, with a rigorous review already built in, can proceed without great formality. In contrast, the sale of a "full" university, possessing perpetual powers, might (should?) trigger a careful vetting of the proposed purchaser and its ability to maintain standards (as well as, say, its attitude to academic freedom, an issue perhaps of less concern in teach-for-the-test training, the College of Law's core product).

Naturally, all this is covered in the 800-plus fun-packed pages of our 2012 edition of The Law of Higher Education.

Dennis Farrington and David Palfreyman, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, New College, Oxford

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