Figures on UK private providers have raised renewed questions about the number of students claiming public loans to study sub-degree courses at for-profit colleges, but leaving without qualifications.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency figures, showing the legacy of the last expansion of private provision, were published as the government plans a fresh opening of the sector to new providers in the Higher Education and Research Bill.
There were 52,675 enrolments on private provider courses designated for public student loan funding in 2015-16, according to the figures.
That compares with 50,245 in the previous year’s figures, suggesting that the rapid growth in enrolment at private colleges has been brought under control by the government.
In 2010, the Conservative-led coalition government began a programme of allowing private colleges to expand.
The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have criticised the government for failing to control growth in spending at private colleges via student loans, pointing to high dropout rates at some private providers, particularly those offering sub-degree Higher National courses awarded by Pearson.
The Hesa figures show 14,950 full-time students at providers on Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma courses eligible for Student Loans Company funding, of which 8,125 were first years.
HNDs take two years to complete full-time while HNCs take one year.
The figures indicate a pool of 6,825 students in their second years or beyond. But only 4,180 HNC or HND qualifications were gained by the students, according to the Hesa figures.
A spokesman for Pearson said: “For several years now, Pearson has worked with the government and other partners to ensure a high level of scrutiny surrounding the teaching of these courses.
“We ensure that learners achieving our qualifications can demonstrate they’ve reached a high standard.
“Where we find evidence that any colleges are recruiting without integrity, we take firm action. Data provided by government and other stakeholders continues to be an important source of such evidence.”
The spokesman added: “When measuring completion rates, it should be remembered that the length of time taken to complete these qualifications varies in length. While many programmes would consist of two years of full-time study, students registered for BTEC Higher National qualifications with Pearson have a period of five years in which to complete.”
The figures come as the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill nears its final stages in the House of Lords, where critics have raised concerns about the legislation’s moves to make it easier for new providers to gain degree-awarding powers and university title.
Sally Hunt, the University and College Union general secretary, said that the figures failed to show completion rates at private colleges under the government’s last programme of expansion.
“The sheer scale of what is unknown highlights how the government is basing major decisions on the future of higher education on very limited information,” she said.
“We do not believe that plans to increase the number of alternative providers can go ahead until we can quantify the risk to public finances and our universities’ global reputation from a rapid expansion of private for-profit education.”