A Conservative peer and a former vice-chancellor will lead a cross-party review of for-profit higher education providers.
The Higher Education Commission - a group of business leaders, parliamentarians and academics - will focus its next inquiry on the regulation of private for-profit providers and their potential impact on the university sector as a whole.
The review seeks to address uncertainty about rules that apply to for-profits, such as whether they should be exempt from putting VAT on their tuition fees or be constricted by the student number controls applied to public universities.
In its Budget statement last month, the government revealed that plans to give VAT breaks to commercial providers from 2013-14 had been postponed, although the government says it is still developing plans to create a “level playing field” for all institutions.
“The higher education sector has changed enormously over the past 20 years, but the way it is regulated hasn’t,” said Lord Norton of Louth, professor of government at the University of Hull and a former chair of the Lords’ Parliamentary University Group.
Lord Norton, who will lead the inquiry with Roger King, a research associate at the Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the London School of Economics, added: “The commission will go back to first principles and look at what is needed to adequately protect the interests of students, academics and the taxpayer, and allow our universities to compete effectively on the global stage.”
Professor King, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, said that the scrapping of a planned higher education bill last year meant that the sector was unsure of the government’s intentions regarding for- profit providers. “It’s not clear at the moment whether the aim of current government policy is to improve relevance, quality and standards or to increase competition for its own sake,” he said.
The commission will hold a series of evidence sessions in Westminster and visit a number of institutions before publishing a report in the autumn. A call for written evidence will be issued in early May.