THE CURRENT batch of prospective business leaders networking the grandiose Georgian campus of the European Business School in the heart of London's Regent's Park have an air of collective confidence, augmented by the uniform of Gucci suits and the arsenal of mobile phones.
The school is rich, narrowly focused and exclusive. Its directors say it is rapidly gaining respect with employers. All the school's class of 1995 had a job within six months of graduating with their Open University validated degrees. Private institutions, the directors assert, have a major role in the future of higher education.
"We're not constrained by public sector cuts," says academic director Gerald Shaw. "As a private higher education institution, we find it far easier to manoeuvre in a very competitive market." Funding at EBS is almost entirely from the pockets of the Pounds 7,500-a-year fee-paying students, so quality expectations are high.
"Although I'd much rather see good competition from state-funded higher education," adds Mr Shaw, "the Government fund capping works in our favour."
The school trains 650 undergraduates, with 217 enrolling in September 1996. With a mere 16 per cent of students native to the United Kingdom, as its name would suggest, it has its roots firmly in Europe.
The London EBS was set up in the late 1970s purely as a "reception" for visiting students from its Parisian sister institution. For the first decade of its UK intake, it offered only a private diploma. "We soon began to appreciate that we needed some sort of validation," says Mr Shaw. "And we became validated by the Council for National Academic Awards in 1989."
The Open University Validation Service has just given the school "indefinite" validation - subject to a review every five years. "Validation has brought us public sector recognition," says Mr Shaw. "And objective quality assurance. It was important we got into the right peer group and stopped being introspective."
Mr Shaw says the school has had to deal with "credibility" questions in the past. "Because we're private and rich," he explains, "there has been a credibility issue. But we do have charity status so the money surplus is used purely for education and there can be few questions about what we do with profits."
The school offers five degree courses, and has only tentative plans to expand. "We want to keep the intimacy," explains Mr Shaw. "We're looking at other courses as we have to make the academic and commercial balance. Bringing in new degrees may dilute the others."
As in the school's submission to Dearing, Mr Shaw believes private higher education is here, not just to stay, but to grow and grow. "The private sector is obviously important because we're responding to a market need, and we are doing it effectively. The role of private higher education will increase as the quality of public higher education decreases."