Government plans to bring in more private colleges have been described as threatening to emulate the US model by allowing more than 1,000 universities in England, but by others as a positive route to innovation in a sector “resistant to change”.
The Green Paper contains proposals to reduce – or even scrap entirely – the requirement for institutions to have a certain number of students before they can apply for university title (the present threshold is 1,000), arguing that universities “should not be so limited by the size or location of the student body”.
It also proposes that the degree-level teaching track record required before institutions can apply for degree-awarding powers be reduced from four years to three, and that “more flexibility” be introduced into the definition of track record so that it includes factors such as “the track record of individuals within the organisation”.
Some of the Green Paper’s plans on private providers have been seen as seeking in particular to aid the New College of the Humanities, the private institution set up by the philosopher A. C. Grayling.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of the private not-for-profit Regent’s University London, said: “I’m keen to see more private investment, whether it’s for-profit or charitable investment, in developing new and different higher education institutions – but it’s the reputation we have internationally for the quality of our degrees that is the most important thing.
“We risk, with some of the proposals, I believe, the likelihood that we will erode that – and quite rapidly.”
Professor Cooper said that the Green Paper “seems to be suggesting that every higher education institution will become a university”.
He added: “If we were going down an American model we would already have something like 1,500 universities. We are distinctive in Britain because we are very tight about the definition of a university and the kind of [student] experiences and quality it has to demonstrate. I think it would be detrimental if we were to lose that.”
Professor Cooper said that proposals to consider the “track record of individuals” were “bizarre”. He added: “The fact that they are eminent academics or very good public debaters does not mean that they know how to run a university, which is a most extraordinarily complicated set of processes.”
But Professor Grayling, master of NCH, said that it was remarkable the sector has been “so resistant to change, evolution and competition.
“The highest quality new providers have the potential to innovate – to bring fresh ideas, cutting-edge curricula and new teaching methodologies to the table.
“Allowing these providers a quicker and more streamlined route to degree-awarding powers and university status, subject to continuing strict assessment of quality, is a positive step forward in offering greater choice and improved quality of university experience.”