No case for unequal treatment

July 30, 2004

Why do degree-awarding powers differ for the public and private sector? asks Geoffrey Alderman.

Later this year the Government will implement new criteria for conferring degree-awarding powers. The proposals, announced this month, will make explicit what is implicit at the moment: namely, that non-publicly funded higher education institutions may apply for degree-awarding powers (Dap).

But they will be treated much less favourably than institutions in the public sector.

The issue of Dap has generated two interrelated debates. Should Dap be granted for a fixed term, renewable subject to a satisfactory inspection? And should taxpayer-funded higher education institutions be treated differently from privately funded ones in this respect?

At present, all institutions with Dap derive their degree-granting authority from a Royal Charter, an Act of Parliament or pursuant to provisions under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

Under the 1992 Act, the Privy Council can confer Dap, but only on an indefinite basis. Curiously, the Act does not permit the Government to revoke Dap once granted. But in a consultation carried out this year, the Department for Education and Skills, mindful of the need to protect the reputation of British higher education, suggested that in future Dap might be awarded for a fixed term.

The sector rose up in indignation. It was argued that institutions with fixed-term Dap would have a lesser reputation than those with indefinite Dap, even though their provision might be comparable, if not better, in quality. If a student obtained a degree from such an institution and its Dap was subsequently not renewed, wouldn't that degree have less academic legitimacy?

A two-tier system would evolve, and this itself - it was argued - would further damage the reputation of the sector as a whole.

But in rejecting the proposal for renewable Dap, the sector was pursuing a second aim. That was to use the consultation as a pretext for imposing a fundamental disadvantage on any privately funded institution that managed to convince the Quality Assurance Agency that it could be trusted to confer degrees for taught (as opposed to research) programmes. In response to a second consultation, the sector rejected the renewable Dap proposal as a whole to emphasise its view that while organisations in the publicly funded sector should gain indefinite Dap, others should have fixed-term Dap only.

The reasons for this discrimination are as spurious as they are disingenuous. They include that publicly funded institutions must belong to (and so be subject to audit by) the QAA as a condition of Treasury grant.

But QAA membership could easily (by amending the 1992 Act) be made a condition for conferment of Dap in future.

Further, while a public-sector higher education institution could face withdrawal of taxpayers' money if its standards were deemed unacceptable, such a threat could not be used against private institutions. But as cash-starved institutions seek to become less dependent on taxpayers, this argument must lose force. Are the high standards of the Buckingham University at risk because it is not publicly funded?

If there is some inequity inherent in treating publicly funded institutions differently solely on the basis of when they gained Dap, it is just as inequitable to treat publicly funded institutions more favourably than privately funded ones.

In fact, there is a strong case for making all Dap time limited, no matter whether the powers derive from a Royal Charter or a clause in an Act of Parliament - even Royal Charters can be revoked.

If this is rejected, the only case remaining to ensure equity is to treat all institutions the same, regardless of sources of funding.

Geoffrey Alderman, senior vice-president of the American InterContinental University, London, writes in a private capacity.

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