The UK government’s higher education bill is mounting a “drive towards competition and marketisation” that “puts at risk the fundamental purpose of universities to serve the public interest”, according to a new report.
Bill Rammell, the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor and former Labour higher education minister, says in a report for the Higher Education Policy Institute published today that the bill should be amended to include a public interest duty for the new Office for Students, which will be the market-style regulator of the English sector under the planned changes.
Mr Rammell warns that moves in the bill, which would also open up the sector to new providers and is currently making its way through Parliament, “to fast-track degree-awarding powers and university title for new providers place the reputation of the sector at risk”.
He also says: “The drive towards competition and marketisation of the higher education sector puts at risk the fundamental purpose of universities to serve the public interest and deliver public benefit.”
He warns: “A focus on institutional performance and inter-institutional competitiveness neglects the performance of the system as a whole, especially its capability to tackle persistent challenges such as the attainment gap.
“Encouraging new providers risks spreading existing resources more thinly and increases the chance of provider failure, which could harm students.”
Recommendations in the report, titled ‘Protecting the Public Interest in Higher Education’, include amending the bill to “include a duty on the OfS to have due regard to the public interest in its regulation of providers and to make due consideration of the sustainability and efficacy of the sector as a whole in operating in the public interest when carrying out its activities”.
And it says that where a new provider “has no track record of provision, its offer should be delivered in partnership with a validating provider for at least three years, followed by a further three years during which it can only hold degree-awarding powers on a probationary basis”.
Other recommendations include that the OfS “should be required to take a view on the market viability of new providers as well as their capability to provide a quality offer. New providers should be required to provide an assessment of market demand for their product”.