Jo Johnson has described private colleges as “extending opportunity to a wider range of people”, despite new figures showing high numbers of their students on sub-degree courses and low numbers gaining qualifications.
The universities and science minister’s remarks, following the publication of a first “experimental” batch of data on students at private providers by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 15 June, brought claims that the government risks “promoting a dodgy narrative about the role of alternative providers in widening participation”.
Mr Johnson is aiming to ensure a smooth path through Parliament for the Higher Education and Research Bill, which will create quicker, easier routes for new providers to gain degree awarding powers and university title by transferring powers to grant both from the Privy Council to the new Office for Students.
Hesa says its figures can offer only “partial coverage” of the fast-growing private sector, as only 63 institutions returned data. Recent, separate government research found that there were 732 private colleges in operation.
The Hesa figures, based on returns from larger providers, found 50,245 students enrolled on courses designated for public Student Loans Company funding at the 63 institutions in 2014-15. The figures cover students eligible for public loan funding “irrespective” of whether the student actually received SLC funding, Hesa says.
Of these students, 22,605, or 45 per cent, were enrolled on sub-degree Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma courses, usually awarded by Pearson at private colleges.
Among those on HN courses, 9,485 were first years, leaving 13,120 who were in their second year or beyond.
An HNC can be completed in one year when studying full time.
Only 4,295 HNC/HND students gained qualifications in 2014-15, according to the Hesa stats.
However, a BIS spokesman said that Pearson allows students up to five years from registration to complete their HN courses, cautioning that it was not possible to calculate a definitive qualification rate using these figures.
A Pearson spokesman said that while it did not believe "that longer completion times are necessarily an issue, it is the case that over the last two years Pearson has significantly increased the level of scrutiny of providers and in particular the assessment of learner outcomes, blocking some centres from delivering our qualifications where necessary.
“We will continue to work with BIS, and centres, to support high-quality outcomes for learners.”
The BIS spokesman highlighted the fact that the Hesa figures showed high proportions of ethnic minority and mature students at the 63 private providers. The figures showed 34 per cent of UK-domiciled undergraduate students were black and 43 per cent of all full-time enrolments were students aged over 30.
Mr Johnson said the figures showed that “new and specialist providers are extending the opportunity of higher education to a wider range of people.
“Our reforms are helping more providers offer high-quality degrees, ensuring that more higher education places are available, and that all students can benefit from high-quality teaching and the prospect of a fulfilling graduate career.”
But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, said: “Modern universities remain sector leaders in providing opportunities for students from all ages and backgrounds and BIS is at risk of promoting a dodgy narrative about the role of alternative providers in widening participation.”
She said the analysis was “based on enrolments for a small range of courses which are at best sub-honours degree programmes with questionable outcomes in terms of completions”.
Ms Tatlow added that as the bill makes its way through Parliament, “ministers are likely to face some searching questions in Parliament about whether these claims really stand up to scrutiny and are in the best interests of students and taxpayers”.