Government guilty of ‘abject failure’ over for-profits policy

Sir David Watson says ministers should have learned lessons of the past

July 24, 2014

The government was guilty of an “abject failure” in failing to see there would be problems in letting for-profit colleges access public funding.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, makes the argument in a paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute, asking Is there still a higher education sector?

The paper also repeats Sir David’s longstanding call for a proper system of credit transfer, allowing students mobility between different universities at different stages of their studies.

He argues that the most important factor stopping the spread of credit transfer “seems to have been institutional protectionism”. Sir David says: “Institutional heads need to be less precious about the linking of their status with that of the prior experience of their student body – which, admittedly, is a trend encouraged by the compilers of league tables.”

Meanwhile, Sir David pinpoints the government’s drive to encourage private and for-profit providers as a key threat to the notion of a unified sector.

He says the UK government’s stance on regulating private providers “is in contrast to the view taken by other governments all around the world: that the private sector can be welcomed, and allowed to prosper, but can simultaneously be regulated to meet public purposes…[In] the UK we have a fear, verging on paranoia, about regulating the private and for-profit sector to the same standards and levels of the public sector in case they take away their ball.”

He continues that the government had “apparently not learned the lesson” of a “catastrophe” from around a decade ago when a Labour policy called Individual Learning Accounts was abandoned amid investigations into alleged fraudulent activity.

“It was this abject failure of policy memory that that led to the government in November 2013 having to stop the enrolment of public voucher-bearing students on Higher National qualifications at 22 private colleges and chains,” he says.

Sir David argues that looking to the exploitation of public funding by some for-profit colleges in the US “would also have alerted an administration more cognisant of the international evidence to what happens when incentives enabling for-profit providers of HE to draw in publicly-funded students trump regulatory responsibility for what the students (and graduates) might get”.

His paper is based on a lecture he delivered at a Hepi seminar in March. The paper repeats his arguments, reported by Times Higher Education at the time, that the Russell Group is harmful to the notion of a unified sector.

He argues that the group “represents neither the sector as a whole, nor in many cases the best of the sector”, but “has somehow convinced the politicians that it does play this role”.

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