Opponents of the government’s plan to open up the English higher education system to more alternative providers have been likened by Jo Johnson, the universities minister, to critics of the conversion of polytechnics and the creation of redbrick institutions.
Mr Johnson told the annual conference of the Higher Education Policy Institute that, while some sector leaders feared that allowing new providers to award their own degrees and charge £9,000 tuition fees from the day that they open would endanger the reputation of established universities, “we have heard these concerns before”.
He noted that University College London and King’s College London were dismissed as “cockney universities” in the 1820s, and that when redbrick universities were formed at the turn of the 20th century, students at the University of Oxford were quick to quip: “He gets a degree in making jam/At Liverpool and Birmingham.”
“How wrong they were,” said Mr Johnson, who added that the awarding of university status to polytechnics in the 1990s had triggered alarm for some in the sector about over-education, low standards and strain on the public purse.
Research commissioned by the government has suggested that, on the whole, students at alternative providers are less likely to be satisfied with their experience, more likely to drop out, and have poorer job prospects.
But Mr Johnson highlighted Pearson College, BPP University and the University of Buckingham as examples of what “liberalising” higher education could achieve.
“Students deserve the choice that new universities can offer…and they also deserve quality,” the minister said. “That’s why the government will make it easier for new universities to enter the sector, and it’s why the quality bar for new entrants will remain high.”
Asked at the conference whether his suggestion that transnational firms such as Google and Facebook would offer degrees in England would come to pass, given their apparent lack of interest, Mr Johnson said that there were “lots and lots of companies that are interested in getting involved in this area”, but that he could not name them.
He also moved to allay concerns that running the teaching excellence framework alongside the research excellence framework would drag universities’ core functions further apart, arguing that the two systems should be “mutually reinforcing”.
The TEF will ask institutions to consider how they promote research-informed teaching, and Lord Stern has been asked to consider the impact of excellent teaching in his review of the REF, Mr Johnson said.
Other speakers at the event included Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, who said that the admissions service was exploring ways of giving applicants information on the final grades that students admitted to courses actually achieved, rather than the typical grades required to get an offer.
A “sticker price” that is substantially higher than the grades that might ultimately be accepted at confirmation or in clearing might put off some students who actually had a chance of getting in, she said.
Mike Nicholson, director of recruitment and admissions at the University of Bath, expressed concern that some schools might be tempted to “over-predict” the grades that a student was likely to get, in the knowledge that they would probably be allowed in with slightly poorer marks. Universities should consider what support they intend to provide for students admitted with grades lower than the entry requirements, he added.