Big private providers remain bullish about prospects

September 24, 1999

Farmers are having a tough time of it and the Royal Agricultural College has not been immune, writes Kam Patel. The massive upheaval in the industry is affecting the institution. Principal Barry Dent explains: "Clearly our job is becoming more difficult and demanding but it is also becoming more important." He believes his institution is well placed to help agriculture arm itself with the skills and expertise needed to ensure its success in the 21st century.

One indication is the dramatic change in the kind of graduate required. RAC graduates now have to be multiskilled, armed with scientific and technical expertise across the whole "food chain", from production and processing through to distribution.

Established in 1845, the Cirencester-based private college offers a range of courses that covers virtually all aspects of the management of rural resources. This year the RAC has 545 students, compared with 525 last year and 505 in 1997. Nearly 70 per cent of this year's intake are on undergraduate programmes. Turnover in 1998 was Pounds 7.6 million (compared with Pounds 6.5 million in 1997) and net assets totalled Pounds 9.5 million. Course fees for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are about Pounds 5,000 a year.

Professor Dent says the college places great emphasis on giving students individual attention and industrial experience: "We operate a little like Harvard, continually confronting students with case studies of real problems and underpinning that with theoretical work."

Demand for postgraduate courses is particularly strong with a 25 per cent increase in intake over the past year. Professor Dent says this is partly due to the introduction of new courses. Some of them, such as the MSc in applied equine science and equine business management, have proved "extremely popular" among those looking to a career in the thoroughbred industry.

For similar reasons, there has also been an upsurge in interest in postgraduate courses at Buckingham University, the United Kingdom's only independent chartered university. Robert Pearce, Buckingham's pro vice-chancellor says: "It reflects national trends particularly with regards to demand for specific, vocationally oriented tailored programmes." The university has launched several work-based degree and diploma courses designed in collaboration with firms such as Anglian Water, Virgin Direct and Surrey police force.

Major areas of study at Buckingham, which claims to offer the "best value for money in higher education", include law, business, humanities and science. It argues that with state-funded universities charging Pounds 1,000 tuition fees, Buckingham's two-year degrees, with their 10:1 student-staff ratios have become more competitive. Using Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and National Union of Students figures of about Pounds 5,000 a year for maintenance costs, Buckingham estimates the cost of a three-year degree at a state-funded university at about Pounds 18,000 - a figure it believes it can now match thanks to its two-year degree programme and a new scholarship scheme.

The university hopes that the scholarship scheme will help boost its intake, especially of home students (75 per cent are from overseas). The university had an intake of just 60 in 1976 and hit a peak in 1993 when 900 enrolled. The intake now hovers at about 400 a year.

Richmond, the American International University in London, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year having started as a "study-abroad university" for American students. It now has students from 108 countries and there has been a 35 per cent increase in intake since 1993, giving it a student population of 1,250 - 950 of them undergraduates. President Walter McCann says being being based in London is a big help in attracting students. Tuition fees are Pounds 8,380 a year for undergraduate courses, which include programmes in international business, media, computer studies and social sciences.

The aim is to try not to grow too fast. Mr McCann believes quality private higher education has much to offer Britain but the country will have to "bite the bullet" over making those students who can, pay for the education they receive.

Mr McCann, a graduate of Harvard Law School, says: "Coming from the American system where taking out very large loans to pay for higher education is accepted among students, I do not think a Pounds 1,000 tuition fee is over the top."

While financial pressures on government may force the issue, he believes the "increasing control" being exercised over higher education could also lead to the private sector playing a bigger role. He says: "I think it is only a question of time before Oxford and Cambridge cut themselves loose."

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