New higher education providers should be allowed to award their own degrees and charge £9,000 tuition fees from the day that they open, the higher education White Paper proposes.
Alternative providers currently have to offer degrees validated by a partner institution for five years before they can apply for their own degree-awarding powers, with the application process taking up to two years, but the government proposes to radically speed up this process in a bid to increase competition and widen participation.
The White Paper says that new providers should be able to apply for degree-awarding powers from day one of their operation, under a three-year probationary arrangement that would see them subjected to ongoing monitoring and annual reviews.
After three years, providers would be able to apply for full degree-awarding powers. Three years after that, institutions would be entitled to apply for university title, allowing a process which currently takes eight years to be completed in six.
The White Paper also proposes that alternative providers that want their students to have access to the state loans system should be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 annually, rather than £6,000 as is currently the case. This would be dependent on institutions having access agreements in place with the Office for Students – as universities currently do with the Office for Fair Access – but would be possible from day one of operation.
The proposals – an advance on the ideas contained in last year’s Green Paper – are likely to alarm existing universities. They fear that the reputation of English higher education could be damaged by the incorporation of providers that have had their standards questioned in the past.
But Jo Johnson, the universities minister, told Times Higher Education that new providers would introduce a “positive, competitive dynamic” and would “meet unmet learner demand”, particularly in areas such as two-year degrees and degree apprenticeships.
And he suggested that the changes might encourage leading international universities – or even multinational companies – to offer courses in England.
“We want to make possible a system whereby a high quality new entrant can come in under their own brand and offer their own degrees,” Mr Johnson said. “If a Harvard or a Google or an MIT or an Indian Institute of Technology wants to come and set up an offer their own degrees, we want them to be able to do so."
Mr Johnson acknowledged that there had been “problems” with alternative providers in the last parliament – when large amounts of public funding were drawn down in student loans but completion rates at some providers remained low – but argued “robust steps” had now been taken to drive up standards, including the introduction of student number controls.
And he added: “We will ensure that the Office for Students operates a very, very high quality bar at every stage in the process.”
Mr Johnson said the White Paper would also propose reducing the threshold of 1,000 students required for applications for university title, arguing that he wanted to move to a system in which degree-awarding powers could be “focused” and offered to specialist providers that delivered “distinctive, high quality” courses but did not cover the “full spectrum of provision”.
The White Paper also makes provision for providers to leave the sector as well as join it, requiring all institutions registered with the Office for Students to have in place a plan setting out how their students would be supported to continue their studies in the event of closure.
Sorana Vieru, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, warned that the government’s proposals could put learners at risk.
“The government has serious questions to answer before it can make it easier for new providers to enter the sector,” Ms Vieru said. “We need to know what protections they will be required to give to students, to ensure they are not left in the lurch and ripped off by institutions that may be focused on shareholders rather than students’ interests.”
But Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, argued that existing providers “risked seeming complacent about quality”.
“The right approach for the future is a level playing field for new and old,” he said. “As participation in higher education rises, students should have the opportunity to choose from the widest range of courses, and feel confident that complaints will be taken just as seriously by the regulator wherever they are studying.”