FE college cuts Uclan ties over fees dispute

Further evidence has emerged of divisions between universities and their further education college partners, with allegations of anti-competitive behaviour over tuition fees.

May 7, 2011

As Times Higher Education has reported, some further education colleges that provide higher education courses say they have been put under pressure to charge the maximum £9,000 annual undergraduate tuition fee by their accrediting universities, who are wary of cheaper local competition.

That pressure could derail ministers’ aims of encouraging alternative models of higher education provision that could reduce the costs for students.

In an interview in today’s Times Educational Supplement, Ian Clinton, principal of Blackburn College, the country’s second largest HE-in-FE provider, said he planned to cut ties with the University of Central Lancashire over its fee requirements.

“They told us that we needed to charge the same as them [£9,000] or they wouldn’t be able to work with us,” he said.

Mr Clinton’s college receives funding directly from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, so he is free to shop around for accreditation at another institution. Much of his college’s higher education provision is already validated by the University of Lancaster, which has not sought to influence Blackburn’s fee levels, he said.

Blackburn has set its annual undergraduate tuition fees for 2012-13 at £7,000. It is one of 17 of 123 directly funded further education colleges to have announced their intention to charge more than £6,000, and submitted the required access proposals to the Office For Fair Access.

Mr Clinton said he did not believe that fees lower than £7,000 were sustainable, but added that part of the extra money levied would go towards bursaries.

Graham Baldwin, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at Uclan, said that the university had told its 23 college partners that it preferred them to charge the maximum fee for full-time undergraduate courses, but denied that its aim was to prevent price competition.

“The university has expressed a preference for our partners to charge the same fee as ourselves for a UCLan full-time undergraduate course because we strongly believe that the quality of the student learning experience and students’ employment opportunities are just as good as those studying the same course on Uclan’s Preston campus,” he said.

David Willetts, the universities minister, has indicated that the forthcoming higher education White Paper will protect colleges against anti-competitive practices.

Speaking at a conference in London last week, he said: “Such deliberately anti-competitive behaviour is unacceptable. More than that, if further education colleges can offer good-quality degrees at a more competitive price than a validating university does at its home campus, then I’m all in favour. Universities should not impede cost-effective provision of higher education by colleges.”

joseph.lee@tsleducation.com

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