The creation of a team within the Department for Education to support those who want to set up new universities in England, likened to the country’s New Schools Network, may reflect government concern that a hoped-for influx of “challenger” institutions has not materialised.
Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, unveiled the plan in a speech at the Higher Education Policy Institute annual conference earlier this month.
One senior sector figure suggested that the Office for Students – England’s new regulator charged by the government with overseeing entry of new providers to the sector under newly relaxed rules on degree-awarding powers – has been surprisingly “chilly” on alternative providers. This might explain why the government has stepped in to attempt to drive change faster, they suggested.
In his Hepi speech, Mr Gyimah said that he was “setting up a focused team, working alongside OfS, to help those who want to set up high-quality new universities [to] understand the regulatory system and make the most of the opportunities”.
He added: “If you have a credible plan for the next Open University, the next BPP or the next Buckingham, I want to hear from you – we will help you make the most of your vision.”
Times Higher Education asked the DfE for further details on the remit, scope and size of the new unit. A spokeswoman said that there was no further detail “as yet”, but confirmed that “this will be a team within the DfE”.
Sally Hunt, the University and College Union general secretary, said that Mr Gyimah’s comments suggested that “the expected flood of new, high-quality providers following recent reforms is really more of a trickle”. “Instead of spending precious resource on encouraging new providers when there is little evidence of demand, the government should concentrate on supporting existing institutions with more stable funding to allow them to innovate and meet different needs,” Ms Hunt said.
Mr Gyimah’s announcement may invite comparisons with the New Schools Network, the independent organisation that supports organisations setting up free schools, and thus supports the government’s schools policy.
Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, sought to involve Toby Young, a figurehead of the free schools movement, in higher education by appointing him to the OfS board, a move aborted when media and political attention focused on sexist comments made by Mr Young as well as his remarks about people with disabilities and “progressive eugenics”.
Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said that the new unit “does sound like a version of the NSN for HE”, while noting that, unlike the network, this will be an internal Department for Education team.
“At one level it goes with the grain of markets, new providers and the perceived need for more competition and disruption in the sector,” Professor Westwood continued. “I suspect that DfE have essentially been offering this kind of ‘focused support’ to the likes of NMITE [a new engineering institution in Hereford] and others, including over the use of university title and the application for [degree-awarding powers] over the last couple of years anyway.”
Professor Westwood said that the new provider team “doesn't feel like the kind of service that OfS is set up to do”, given that that organisation often describes itself as “neither friend nor foe” to any kind of provider.
Professor Westwood suggested that the new unit offers further evidence that the sector is “not a ‘market’ that [ministers] want to leave alone”.