'Contestability': buzzword that could open academy's doors to private interest

April 28, 2006

Northumbria University's plan to hire a private provider to teach English has raised alarm over the shape of things to come. Nic Paton reports.

Andrew Feeney is relieved to be in a job. Northumbria University has announced five redundancies, the loss of two senior lecturer jobs and the downgrading of four other lecturing posts in the English Language Centre where he works. In all, 28 redundancies are expected, along with the creation of 18 new posts, many at a lower grade than their equivalent positions,Jin what some see as a test case for the future of higher education.

Feeney and colleagues walked out for a day in protest at the restructuring earlier this month. "If they can get it through, I have no doubt whatsoever that other deans will say 'well, maybe we can make these sorts of changes'," he says.

Apart from uncertainty over jobs, the decision to appoint a private training provider has worried academic staff and unions. Study Group International will set up and operate a "Northumbria University International Study Centre" to teach some of the courses run by the English Language Centre.

As Martin Levy, branch chair of lecturers' union Natfhe, puts it: "This is the first step to privatisation of our education provision. It looks like the English Language Centre is being slimmed down to hand it over to Study Group. These privateers will profit from the university's reputation, but their staff won't get the pay and conditions that they deserve - and quality will suffer."

On one level, the Northumbria dispute may be little more than a local spat - Tony Dixon, deputy vice-chancellor, dismisses talk of creeping privatisation. "The English Language Centre is massively overstaffed compared with the student numbers and the income coming in. It was decided a year ago that it needed to be restructured," he says.

But the publication of the Government's further education White Paper has brought the issue of commercial competition - or "contestability" to use the jargon preferred in government circles - centre stage, not just for further education but potentially for higher education too.

The Department for Education and Skills describes contestability as "widening the market to create more suppliers of public services". Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, puts it somewhat more bluntly: "It is the buzzword of the moment.

It is partly popular because this Government does not like to use the word competition. But it is also about having a contestable market, a market structure that is more competitive," he says.

A good analogy is the National Health Service and the growth of private treatment centres. They are still free at the point of demand but, depending on your point of view, either work in competition or are complementary to existing state provision.

Gravatt says the White Paper proposes that contestability form part of the equation in four situations: where a college is failing, where provision needs to be expanded, where work-based learning is being delivered and in adult learning through schemes such as Train to Gain (the new national skills programme being introduced across England).

What this means for higher education is unclear. Take the failing college scenario. There is generally a much lighter touch inspection regime in higher education than in further education. This makes contestability in higher education much less likely, at least for now. "It may be that once the Government has tasted blood in the further education sector, it might want to raise the bar in the university sector," Gravatt speculates.

With regard to scenarios two and three, there is not much room for bidding in the way the Higher Education Funding Council for England allocates funding. But, says Gravatt, there is no reason why a more competitive bidding system could not be introduced.

As for scenario four, if the Government wishes, as it has stated, to expand post-16 and adult education, why confine this expansion to the college sector, Gravatt asks.

Glenn Rikowski, senior lecturer in education studies at Northampton University, says the focus on further education in terms of contestability is hardly surprising as the sector has historically had the closest links to the private and corporate sector.

"What is significant about the White Paper is that it opens up areas where private companies can start to run faculties or even institutions and that could spill over into higher education," he says.

In an article in this month's Prospect magazine, Robert Jackson, a former Higher Education Minister, argues that the granting of university status to former polytechnics and the subsequent expansion of the student population and higher-level vocational studies has led to postwar models of higher education rapidly becoming out of date. The idea that universities will remain a state responsibility funded collectively by taxpayers and delivered on a more or less planned basis has become unsustainable, he says.

"Which is better - state-sponsored misery all round in the name of equity, or a further opening up of non-state funding for activities that are admittedly important, but whose priority is regarded as less pressing than others?" he asks.

A keen enthusiast of contestability, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Di McEvoy-Robinson, who until a few weeks ago was principal of West Nottingham College and is now director of learning and skills at Carter & Carter, one of the largest providers of commercial training in the country.

She believes that contestability is not to be feared within further education and should not be feared within higher education either, although it probably will be, she concedes. "It is not something to be afraid of because it is about growth. It is not about removing departments, it is about growing with employers and having very skilled people coming into departments," she explains.

Where commercial providers have an area of expertise, say, the automotive or engineering sectors, why should that not be put to the widest use, she asks. But public-private partnerships need to be exactly that - partnerships - she cautions. "I have 25 appointments with further education principals who are all really keen to find out what the model could look like," she explains.

While further education is very different from higher education, the obstacles would not be immutable, she predicts.

McEvoy-Robinson points to Nottingham University's decision in 2004 to open a campus in China. Although not in itself a commercial venture, she thinks it shows the potential that there might be in "franchising" a university brand.

Carter & Carter is holding meetings with Leeds Metropolitan and Bolton universities about vocational training, in Bolton's case using automotive industry specialists, she says, adding: "It is really just some initial explorations."

McEvoy-Robinson believes you could have an employee from age 16 following a straight line from apprenticeship to further education and on to a first degree, all the time working with the same commercial training provider.

"You would also be removing some of the snobbery and elitism around degrees as being purely academic. There are different models that need to be looked at," she says.

Whether for good or ill, the ex-polytechnics are likely to be the most ripe for change in this direction, Rikowski suggests.

What is clear is that, in an environment of declining state funding and where there are already signs that the gravy train of overseas students may dry up in the not too distant future, whatever conclusions are reached, new thinking will be required.

Next week: US education consultancies eye up the UK market


Although not "contestability" in its purest sense, the growing overlap between further education and employers can be seen at Bury College, which could provide a model for how higher education might develop.

In 1999, the institution set up Bury College Business Solutions, a training company that deals solely with employers.

BCBS is owned, and its staff employed, by the college, but it is funded wholly by employers.

Heather Starr, curriculum manager, says: "The training is delivered by members of staff from the college, although we do have our own specialist staff too." She adds that any work college staff do for the company forms part of their contracted hours within the college.

Developing this sort of model within higher education would be feasible, she says, because its research and development resources are hugely attractive to many employers, who would probably be only too willing to pay for their employees to get access to cutting-edge research, equipment or thinking.

"There is no reason why (academics) should not deliver specialist training in some areas," she says.

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