Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has claimed that making it easier for new providers to enter the regulated English higher education sector and offer their own degrees would result in a “net gain in quality”.
Is this claim borne out by the evidence? Until now, it has been hard to tell, with little hard data being publicly available on the majority of “alternative” providers – those that do not receive direct public funding. Meanwhile, international companies such as Google and Facebook have responded with apparent indifference to the minister’s suggestion that they could start offering degrees in England.
However, a major study published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills after the release of the White Paper begins to reveal the scale and diversity of this part of the sector, as well as concerns about standards in some providers.
The paper, produced by IFF Research using data for 2014, calculates that, at that point, there were 732 alternative providers in England educating an estimated 245,000 students.
This suggests that the alternative sector is expanding rapidly: an analysis conducted two years earlier, while not directly comparable, listed 442 institutions teaching about 160,000 people.
The IFF study reveals that the vast majority of recent growth has been in the for-profit market: 93 per cent of institutions that had opened in the preceding five years fell into this category.
And while the number of alternative providers was growing overall, there were also a number of institutions that closed between 2012 and 2014: the IFF study counted 90, as well as 23 others that no longer offered higher education courses.
This impression of flux may worry those in universities who are concerned about the reputation of English higher education, which has been built up over many decades.
These worries are likely to be heightened by evidence in the report that suggests that the student experience at some alternative providers falls short in comparison with traditional universities.
IFF posed the questions from the National Student Survey to 2,732 students who were enrolled at alternative providers in 2014 and found that the proportion of learners who said that they were satisfied overall – 76 per cent – stood 10 percentage points below the equivalent figure in the normal NSS.
The paper stresses that the two figures are not comparable, but there are other causes for concern: among 740 former students of alternative providers questioned for the report, 46 per cent said that, with the benefit of hindsight, they would have chosen to study at a different institution.
IFF also presents evidence that graduate employment rates and completion rates are lower in alternative providers: the survey of leavers suggests a completion rate of just 75 per cent.
In such a diverse sector, drawing conclusions from averaged data such as these is inevitably problematic. But the IFF report is clear that the results also reflect the type of students typically enrolled in alternative providers, who generally give lower scores on such measures.
Data on 72,745 students at 276 alternative providers find that those studying in this part of the sector tend to be older, with only 23 per cent aged under 20 at time of entry, compared with 37 per cent in the publicly funded sector. This is potentially cause for celebration, suggesting that alternative providers may have a role in combating the sector-wide collapse in mature study.
Likewise, IFF’s research suggests that learners at alternative providers are significantly more likely to be from an ethnic minority: 46 per cent in the student survey were non-white, compared with 19 per cent in the publicly funded sector.
So perhaps there is a place for alternative providers closer to the heart of English higher education. But is that actually what providers want?
IFF’s survey of 276 providers shows that more than 60 per cent planned to expand their student intake and the number of courses they offered within the next five years, while 38 per cent intended to apply for the right to offer students state support such as tuition fee loans.
However, degree-awarding powers appear more likely to remain the preserve of traditional providers, with just 12 per cent expressing an interest in acquiring these over the next five years.
Carl Lygo, vice-chancellor of for-profit BPP University, said that the report showed that, while the alternative sector was “doing a great job at attracting students that would not otherwise go into higher education”, there was “quite a lot of instability in the sector”.
“It is a sector that really does need a track record before progressing on to full degree-awarding powers,” Professor Lygo said.
While the sector as a whole “could do better” on teaching standards, these might be improved if alternative providers were allowed to charge £9,000 tuition fees, Professor Lygo added.