The University of Gloucestershire should "swim like a dolphin" in a far-reaching joint venture with private firm INTO, its deputy vice-chancellor has said. The council at Gloucestershire, which has a £21 million historic debt, has agreed the INTO partnership in principle.
A source at Gloucestershire said that staff had been warned by senior management that the university "has no future without a public-private partnership". The source added that the university was "desperate as its international strategy has collapsed", with overseas student numbers declining steeply.
The INTO plan appears to have the potential to go further than most projects involving the firm, which has established joint ventures with several universities offering pathway pre-degree programmes for overseas students. INTO is itself seeking additional investment, which could involve its owner, Andrew Colin, selling a stake to a private equity firm or another investor.
A PowerPoint presentation given by Richard O'Doherty, the university's deputy vice-chancellor, to the institution's senior management team, sets out the INTO proposals. It says: "Further areas for exploration include transnational education, online and [University of Gloucestershire] validation for [higher education] delivery."
The presentation outlines the "INTO business model", involving a 50-50 joint venture with the host university that establishes a "new university college" and has "exclusive rights to deliver pathway/other courses to international students".
The presentation closes with an analogy from the animal kingdom. "Dinosaur, crab or dolphin? Do we want to engage in an INTO partnership? If so, what might inhibit UoG swimming like a dolphin in terms of engaging with this project?"
The University and College Union said eight staff could be transferred to INTO, adding that staff do not believe a for-profit company "is an appropriate organisation to run local education".
Decline and shortfall
There is also evidence that the university is battling against a shortfall in home and European Union student numbers.
Minutes from a faculty board meeting in June state that the university's executive "proposed that all programmes accept students with 180 points (the equivalent of DDD at A level) through clearing".
The source at Gloucestershire said that the shortfall in student numbers was around 400 on a target of 2,300 for 2012-13, creating a deficit of £1.5 million on the contingency budget previously agreed for a shortfall of 200 students.
A Gloucestershire spokesman said: "The university is in discussion with INTO about a possible partnership. This reflects the objectives stated in our five-year strategic plan, that we would take opportunities to grow and to strengthen our international partnerships."
The spokesman said the university "was pleased that the entry qualifications of students accepting places with us this year averaged over 280 points" - a "good outcome in a challenging recruitment round". However, he conceded that the institution "did not fill all of [its] places".
Sir Peter Scott, chair of council at Gloucestershire, said the council had agreed the INTO partnership "in principle, but established a scrutiny group to examine the details".
He added: "Given Gloucestershire's experiences in recent years, no risks are being taken."