'No need for alarm' - private provider speaks out

September 6, 2012

In an exclusive conversation with our veteran reporter Keith Ponting (30), the head of Poppleton City's for-profit College of Hedge Fund Studies, Mike Sartorious, has spoken frankly about the growth of private, profit-making colleges of higher education in the UK. Here is a full transcript of that groundbreaking interview.

Ponting: Might I begin with the Harkin report into for-profit higher education in the US which, after a two-year investigation, found, according to the influential newspaper USA Today, that for-profit colleges were a "racket" and that their business models were "too often based on picking taxpayers' pockets"?

Sartorious: A "racket"?

Ponting: That's right. The report also showed that in 2009-10, the US private sector received £20.3 billion from the federal government in student aid funds, and that dropout rates from for-profit colleges were as high as 54 per cent.

Sartorious: 54 per cent?

Ponting: That's right. The report also showed that for-profit higher education colleges spent 22.7 per cent of all their revenue on marketing, took 19.4 per cent in pre-tax profit and spent just 17.2 per cent on teaching.

Sartorious: 17.2 per cent?

Ponting: That's right. The report also noted the high dividends received by for-profit directors, dividends not unlike the £1 million received by the chief executive of The London School of Commerce and his wife in 2010.

Sartorious: And his wife?

Ponting: That's right. And while there is an accrediting body like the Quality Assurance Agency in the US, recognised by the US Secretary of Education, there are some for-profit UK providers who, while in receipt of student loans, are not required to be members of the QAA. We also learn that the government's plan for regulating the expanding private sector is still to be formulated.

Sartorious: Still to be formulated?

Ponting: That's right. And the US also insists upon a for-profit college acquiring re-accreditation when it is taken over by another body, whereas here in the UK, there was no such requirement when BPP was sold to Apollo, the owners of for-profit University of Phoenix, or when the College of Law was recently sold to a private equity company.

Sartorious: No such requirements?

Ponting: That's right. In view of all this, would you agree that the Harkin report raises some interesting issues for private higher education in this country?

Sartorious: Look, what all this shows is that there comes a point where we've simply got to stop thinking for ourselves and place our trust in the minister for universities. That clever Mr Willetts would hardly have spent so many hours taking lunch and dinner with well-heeled private providers like myself, and indeed my good wife, unless he had complete faith in our thorough commitment to the traditional values of higher education. We must keep things in perspective. As Paul Kirkham, the managing director of the London-based for-profit Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, recently said so eloquently, a great deal of all this high-minded concern about private companies making lots and lots of money out of higher education is because this new provision is a "threat to the establishment". I hope that now clarifies the situation.

Ponting: You could hardly have been more edifying.

Thought for the week

Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development, has been severely mauled by a "rogue" dolphin but has emailed to say that she hopes to be "back in harness" next week.

lolsoc@dircon.co.uk.

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