Government moves to allow new private providers to award degrees as soon as they start up have been described as “dangerous for students” by sector critics.
But plans in the higher education White Paper to reduce the current four-year teaching track record required before institutions can award their own degrees, to a three-year probationary period that starts on entry to the sector were welcomed by A. C. Grayling, master of the New College of the Humanities.
The White Paper also proposes that the minimum student numbers requirement for institutions hoping to gain university title – currently 1,000 – be scrapped. The changes would mean that a new provider could go from having no students to having university status within six years.
And private providers gaining “approved (fee cap)” status would gain access to £9,000 fee loans (provided that they reached an access agreement) as well as public teaching and research funding currently allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Responsibility for the granting of degree-awarding powers and university title will also be taken away from the Privy Council and given to the new Office for Students (OfS), the White Paper says.
“Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception,” says the White Paper.
On degree-awarding powers (DAPs), the document says: “It will be possible for high quality providers to enter the sector on the basis of their potential (subject to rigorous quality controls) and gain probationary foundation or taught DAPs as soon as the OfS is satisfied that the conditions of being an Approved provider have been provisionally met. They can then offer their own degrees while building up a 3 year track record for full DAPs.”
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of private non-profit Regent’s University London and chair of the Independent Universities Group, said: “I feel that is dangerous for students. The question has to be what will be the process for deciding an institution can go on to that provisional basis.”
Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills, said: “The thing that sticks out as being hugely worrying is this idea that you can apply for degree-awarding powers, and students can be being signed up, on a probationary basis. Leaving aside the issue of who the challenger institutions will be…that I think is a huge weakness and puts [students] in jeopardy.”
Carl Lygo, vice-chancellor of for-profit BPP University, said: “I hope that the minister will look to the quality end of the alternative provider sector to play a full part in the regulation of the sector…Dangling the carrot of access to higher fees needs to be accompanied with effective regulation of the ‘market’.”
But Professor Grayling said: “If you approve of innovation, and you believe it is at least as likely to come from new institutions as incumbents, then it is surely right to lift the penalties on the fact of being new. So the proposal to change the award of degree-awarding powers, assessing the track record of faculty distinct from their institution, is logical and desirable.”