One in five private providers of higher education in England plans to apply for degree-awarding powers by the end of the decade, signalling increased competition for established universities.
Additionally, nearly all independent institutions are expecting to grow their student numbers, according to The Independent Higher Education Survey 2017, conducted by Independent Higher Education, the representative body for many alternative providers.
The survey shows that applying for taught degree-awarding powers was the top-ranked medium-term plan for private providers, with 22 per cent saying that they will seek this over the next three years. A further 22 per cent of providers said that they are also considering single-subject or level degree-awarding powers.
Nine in 10 institutions expected their UK student numbers to grow or stay the same, while more than 80 per cent expect the same for international student numbers. However, 30 per cent felt that their European Union student numbers would decline in the next year.
IHE said that the 111 respondents to the survey represented between a third and half of providers likely to engage with the new regulator, the Office for Students, which will be in charge of issuing degree-awarding powers and university titles.
One of the key aims of the UK government’s Higher Education and Research Act, which created the OfS, was to encourage new providers to enter the sector to compete with established universities, by making it easier for new institutions to gain degree-awarding powers and university title.
In the survey, 55 per cent of respondents indicated that the act would create a better higher education system for their institution, with only 5 per cent disagreeing.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they planned to register with the OfS at either the “basic”, “approved” or “approved (fee cap)” levels. “Approved” institutions will be able to access student loan funding, charge above £9,000 in tuition fees and, if they have a visa sponsorship licence, recruit international students. “Approved (fee cap)” institutions will have their fees capped at £9,000 – or more, in line with inflation, if they have participated in the teaching excellence framework (TEF) – but will be entitled to access public research funding.
Alex Proudfoot, IHE’s chief executive, said that private providers have “the potential to be agents of great change in higher education”, and are planning to “take advantage of the opportunities in the act”, including reforms to degree-awarding powers.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the survey exemplified alternative providers’ “considerable ambition”.
“The fact that so many want to award their own degrees and to recruit many more students suggests that they plan to follow the path that traditional universities once trod – but in their own style,” he told Times Higher Education. “It is likely that, in a few years, the overall shape of higher education will have been altered as a result, quite possibly to the detriment of some existing universities.
“Alternative providers are, in some cases, healthy saplings planning to grow up to be secure oak trees. There is a political incentive for them to do so because, if there were to be a more left-of-centre government than we are used to, they would be harder to uproot.”