The trouble with taught degree-awarding powers

Nick Hillman on plans to use the powers to sort good universities from bad

June 19, 2014

Why push a teaching-only institution happy with its degree-awarding partners to go solo if its own students don’t want that?

A decade ago, Tony Blair’s government put rocket boosters under the concept of taught degree-awarding powers by allowing teaching-only universities. The rationale was explained in the 2003 higher education White Paper: “The current system does not sufficiently reflect factors such as new virtual learning models, or the legitimate roles of those outside the university sector in providing high quality higher education learning.”

At the time, many people opposed the change on the grounds that universities are about research, not just teaching. But the immediate impact was small. By the time of the 2010 general election, only a tiny handful of private providers had successfully applied for the powers, and none of them had gone on to secure university title.

After 2010, the coalition government refuelled the rocket boosters by establishing a new route for private entities to secure university title, known as the Companies House route. Institutions such as BPP College, the College of Law and Regent’s College quickly became universities.

This was in keeping with the idea that taught degree-awarding powers (TDAP) were a staging post on the way to university title. But the powers have since taken on a life of their own. In 2011, the Home Office decided that they should be a key test for international students. If you have TDAP, your international students can work part-time; if you don’t, they can’t.

It now seems that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will copy its old foes in the Home Office by using TDAP as a critical test. BIS is in the process of capping the number of students at alternative providers for 2014-15. Crucially, providers with their own TDAP are expected to receive all the places they want, while bigger institutions without them are unlikely to. Some think TDAP will become the key test for deciding which alternative providers will be included in the removal of the student numbers cap in 2015-16.

At first sight, using TDAP to separate the wheat from the chaff seems sensible. Surely a provider that does not have the right to teach its own degrees should not have the same freedoms as those that can? But close inspection shows this logic to be wanting.

Take the issue of quality. At the moment, degree-awarding bodies are responsible for the quality of courses at institutions that teach their qualifications. Some teaching-only bodies have voluntarily undergone their own Quality Assurance Agency reviews and have come out well – so why should they be subject to different rules? A more rational risk-based approach would start with a focus on private colleges specialising in sub-degree provision, where there are some pressing problems.

The current regulations mean that students pursuing exactly the same degree can have completely different rights. When the new Home Office rules came in, for example, international students at the University of Sunderland could work part-time, but those studying a Sunderland degree at EThames Graduate School in London could not. It is not clear that this is legally watertight, and it is hard to square with the government’s stated commitment to promote educational “exports”.

Institutions that do not have TDAP are left with a very odd set of incentives to apply for them. Why push a teaching-only institution that has strong relationships with degree-awarding partners to stand on its own two feet if its own students don’t want that?

Ministers envisage a clear threestep ladder to becoming a university: validation; TDAP; then university title. But the inferior treatment of those without TDAP means that step one on the ladder is broken, and step two is being asked to bear more weight than it was designed for.

All this goes against the idea of encouraging a diverse sector with different sorts of providers, public and private. While many people oppose that diversity, for the coalition government it is a stated objective. New providers trying to play by the rules could be forgiven for thinking that they have entered a topsy-turvy world.

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