DfE approves UK university sales, but regulator’s advice kept secret

Ministers back University of Law, Arden sales to Netherlands-registered GUS, as BPP decision awaited

August 24, 2017
Secret on a train
Source: Rex
Not for sharing: papers on review of university title after an institution’s sale are marked ‘exempt from publication’

The UK's Department for Education has given the green light for two for-profit universities sold to Global University Systems, owned in the Netherlands, to retain their university titles and degree-awarding powers, but critics say that such reviews must be open to scrutiny.

The DfE never officially announced its decisions on the University of Law and Arden University after their sales to GUS, whose umbrella group also includes St Patrick’s College and the London School of Business and Finance.

It is understood that the DfE is yet to conclude its reviews of BPP University’s continued eligibility for university title and degree-awarding powers, after its US owner was sold to a private equity consortium for $1.1 billion (£856 million).

The advice given to the DfE by the Higher Education Funding Council for England as part of these reviews remains secret. Papers on review of university title after the sale of an institution are marked as “exempt from publication” in Hefce’s board agendas.

Sales of universities are likely to become more commonplace as the government pursues plans, established by the Higher Education and Research Act, to create more competition for established institutions by easing entry to the English sector for new providers.

As Times Higher Education has revealed, all three of the UK’s for-profit universities – Arden, the University of Law, and BPP – are ultimately owned in the Netherlands, known for having an attractive regime for corporations.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that “private universities gain significant income from UK students and taxpayers”.

“Important information, including recommendations from the regulator, should be open to scrutiny, and the results of reviews should be published,” she said.

Carl Lygo, formerly BPP’s vice-chancellor, exited a month after Apollo’s sale to two US private equity firms was announced in February. He had been at the institution for 20 years and had led it to become, first, a university college and then a university.

Peter Crisp, dean and chief executive officer of BPP’s law school, was to step down from the institution at the end of June, according to reports.

Guidance issued in 2015 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills outlines the process followed when a provider holding degree-awarding powers changes hands.

“The Department needs to be assured that the original ‘institution’ awarded DAPs [degree-awarding powers] is the same institution post the change,” it says. “For this purpose the ‘institution’ is the cohesive and self-critical academic community that was assessed by the QAA [Quality Assurance Agency] for DAPs and, in so doing, demonstrated firm guardianship of its standards.”

Separate 2015 BIS guidance states that when a provider with university title undergoes a change of ownership, within three months of the sale it must “provide independent evidence that, following the change, you continue to satisfy all the criteria for student numbers (for university title) and good governance”. The secretary of state, “on receipt of Hefce’s advice”, then takes a decision on whether the institution remains eligible for university title.

A University of Law spokeswoman said that the institution had its university title confirmed by the DfE in January 2016, and degree-awarding powers in December 2015, after a sale announced in June 2015.

A GUS spokesman said that the DfE’s review of Arden (sold in August 2016) “was concluded in April 2017. The DfE decision was that Arden University remained the same institution that was assessed for DAP in 2014 and continued to meet the criteria for university title.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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