Can a for-profit college owned by a private equity firm do better at widening participation for poor students than a publicly funded university?
GSM London, which in 2012 opened a huge campus in west London, would have you believe that it is possible. GSM has spent £30 million on its Greenford site, taking out a long-term lease on the former offices of GlaxoSmithKline, while also retaining its original home in Greenwich.
Since it was bought by Sovereign Capital in 2011, the institution, formerly known as Greenwich School of Management, has rapidly increased its number of students with public-backed loans. It received £11 million in fee funding via the Student Loans Company in 2012‑13, more than any other private provider and more than the London School of Economics. According to SLC figures, 3,366 GSM students had public-backed fee loans in 2012, up from just 496 in 2010 – a sevenfold rise in two years.
From central London by Underground, Greenford is a bit of a trek west into the suburbs. The upper floors of the GSM building look out over the greenery of Horsenden Hill.
Alison Wride, GSM’s provost, described the student body as “very widening participation” – people who “haven’t grown up assuming they will go to university”. She said: “We have the opportunity to change their lives.”
Entry requirements are two passes at A*-E for A levels, with options on vocational qualifications as well. There is a foundation year entry point on all programmes for students who do not meet those entry requirements. “We deliver most of our teaching in smaller groups and think high numbers of lecture hours are not conducive to good engagement,” said Professor Wride.
Is GSM doing something that a publicly funded university could not in terms of widening participation? “I don’t see why a public university couldn’t replicate what we are doing,” said Professor Wride. “But they are not choosing to.”
GSM is not a university so does not feature in league tables, although Professor Wride expects it will in future. But that means there is no “tension” between widening participation and league table positions, which are based partly on entry tariffs.
“We all know there are post‑92 universities who were doing much more on widening participation [but] have changed their direction and talked about upping entry qualifications, because why would [a publicly funded university] want to sit at the bottom of the league tables?”
She observed: “From the point of view of social mobility and what we can do, it ought to be an irrelevance, our ownership model.”
And Professor Wride continued: “It’s our students’ money, but there’s a facilitation and a contribution from the taxpayer. We’re very aware of it…We watch the money we spend and we think about…‘is there good value for the student experience?’ ”
GSM focuses mainly on business and management subjects. But it also offers degrees in other subjects with “clear employability links”. The provision is “all degrees”, validated by Plymouth University, Professor Wride said. In terms of future degree-awarding powers and university title, she said that it was “fair to say they are on the agenda” but that there was no firm timescale and it would apply only “when ready”.
GSM recently passed institutional review by the Quality Assurance Agency after falling short on two out of three criteria in its initial review in 2012.
Professor Wride said that the Greenford campus allows GSM to “spread our wings beyond southeast London”, and she added that there is “potential” to grow student numbers “to 10,000 plus” across the two campuses (she put the present enrolment at about 6,500).
But that was dependent on government policy about student number caps at private providers and a range of factors, she stressed. “We are not seeking growth for its own sake…[what’s] paramount is the quality of the student experience.”
Is the owner’s business model based on rapidly expanding the number of students with public-backed loans? “The investment obviously is based on the premise of growth…You invest to sustain growth, but that isn’t the same as saying, ‘Pile it high, sell it cheap, extract the surplus’,” Professor Wride replied. “If someone had come to me three years ago and said, ‘Would you like to run this institution, it’s got a thousand students?’, I’d have said ‘no’. You’re not going to be a serious higher education institution at that level unless you’re very niche.”
She added that the growth is about “becoming a mainstream player in the sector”, albeit without a mainstream ownership structure.
Professor Wride noted that public money passes to the private sector in many fields, be it buying arms, medicines or school meals or paying private companies to run buildings under private finance initiatives. “As an economist, I’m not sure I see the difference between a PFI and what we’re doing,” she said.
£11m - Amount of fee funding GSM received via the Student Loans Company in 2012‑13
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