There have been “concerns about the ability of some alternative providers to deliver consistently high-quality provision to prospective students who will most benefit”, admits the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in a consultation on the changes.
“Poorer quality providers would see a significant reduction – or removal entirely – of their Student Loan Company funded places,” says the consultation, which follows the coalition government’s move to expand private provision of higher education.
BIS also proposes minimum English language requirements for students at private providers – and even says that it “may be appropriate” to consider whether such rules should be applied to all higher education institutions.
The consultation is the latest in a series of moves by BIS to tighten the rules on private providers, after the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee criticised the department for its lack of controls and checks over public spending at private colleges.
BIS published its latest moves on February, the day that Labour announced its £6,000 fee policy and the sector’s attention was likely to have been elsewhere.
The consultation makes three proposals “aimed at improving the overall outcomes for students and value for money” at private colleges: a minimum English language requirement, requiring private colleges to provide the same Key Information Set to students as universities with direct public funding, and linking student number controls to “performance” on quality and student retention.
BIS says that the NAO report raised “concerns that are shared by the government, about the English language competency of students at alternative providers who receive tuition fee loans from the government”.
It adds that the best way to tackle the problem is to “introduce a requirement on alternative providers to ensure that their students have a nationally set level of English, sufficient for higher education study”.
And BIS continues: “The government does not intend to introduce a similar requirement for Hefce [Higher Education Funding Council for England] funded providers at present, as the level of risk appears to be lower. In the future it may be appropriate to consider whether a minimum standard should be applied consistently to the broader higher education sector.”
The level proposed by BIS for private colleges is International Level B2.
On student number controls, the department has said that private providers with degree awarding powers will not be subject to caps, “bringing them into line with the Hefce-funded sector”.
The consultation states that student number controls will be introduced for part-time and distance learning courses offered by private colleges without degree awarding powers, and for their courses offered via franchise with universities.
It also says that BIS had previously considered reducing 2015-16 student number controls for private colleges with “poor retention”.
“The government is now minded to apply this approach to those providers offering predominantly qualifications which are not awarded or validated by an organisation with UK degree awarding powers,” the consultation continues. Pearson, via its examination arms Edexcel, is the awarding body for the sub-degree courses used by the fastest-growing private colleges.
“BIS will write to these providers shortly to give details of its proposed approach. Final decisions on the actual level of each provider’s student number control for 2015-16 will be subject to discussions between BIS and providers about the quality of their performance.”
The measures of performance proposed by the government are outcomes of review by the Quality Assurance Agency, “student drop-out rates”, rates of student progression on to the next year of courses, rates of students obtaining a qualification and rates of progression into further study or employment.
Responses to the consultation are invited by March.