Non-teaching bodies will be players, Pearson boss says

Education giant determined to establish its name 'much more strongly' in sector, John Morgan hears

August 16, 2012

Sir David Melville has been on an unusual journey, from physics lecturer and union branch president to vice-chancellor and now to chairman of the education arm of Pearson - a FTSE-100 company with an annual turnover of more than £5 billion.

When the government said in last year's higher education White Paper that it would open degree-awarding powers to "non-teaching institutions", it was a clear nod to Pearson, the biggest of the for-profit operators seeking to strengthen their hand in higher education.

Sir David, former vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and of Middlesex University, became chairman of Pearson Education earlier this year, having been a board member since 2005.

He said in an interview with Times Higher Education that despite the shelving of the higher education bill he believed that the granting of degree-awarding powers to non-teaching bodies "is something that will come along still. The government has not said that its intention has changed."

Pearson could also offer its own degrees if it were to buy an institution with the coveted status, but that does not currently seem to be on the cards.

"We are not looking at acquiring institutions with degree-awarding powers ourselves at present," Sir David said. "But we are looking at establishing the Pearson name in higher education much more strongly."

Sir David, who is also a governor at London South Bank University and at Manchester Metropolitan University, said there were benefits to be had from a non-teaching body such as Pearson offering degrees. "Across the world it is known as a learning company, as the biggest educational company in the US, for example," he said. "Our interest is in supporting learning right across the board: higher education to Pearson ... is part of the spectrum."

This week, the company officially launched Pearson College, which will from this autumn offer a BSc honours degree in business and enterprise validated by Royal Holloway, University of London.

Sir David said that having "a much stronger relationship with validating institutions" - such as Pearson's venture with Royal Holloway - was one of the ways the company could expand into higher education. This could lead to partnerships with "different kinds of universities" wanting to offer "more vocational courses", he said.

In answer to criticisms of for-profit higher education by organisations such as the University and College Union, Sir David said the financial strength behind Pearson's examination business meant that it had the "ability to invest" in advanced marking technologies.

He added: "We will only be a commercial success if we have the highest standards."

Sir David was a branch president for the Association of University Teachers - which later merged to create the UCU - while he was a physics lecturer at the University of Southampton. He said he was "happy to debate with UCU" on for-profit provision.

Responding to those who argue against for-profit higher education providers getting a public subsidy via the taxpayer-funded student loans system, Sir David said: "There is public money going into private-sector services throughout the NHS.

"We do seem to have got through that hurdle. I believe we can get through it in education - but only by demonstrating that not only does this provide the highest quality but also it is cost-effective."

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