In a report on improving quality assurance in higher education, University Alliance, which represents 22 mainly post-1992 universities, said more checks were needed on alternative providers, which are set to receive about £900 million in student support this year – a nine-fold increase on 2011-12.
The report, titled How do we ensure quality in an expanding higher education system?, published on 21 May, says there has been “especially rapid growth among alternative providers of Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), many of whom have relatively short track-records in working within the UK higher education quality assurance system and do not have links with degree awarding bodies”.
In addition, “there is almost no comparable information about these providers’ satisfaction, retention or employability rates”, the report adds.
The large majority of private providers did not provide their students with access to an external complaints moderator, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, a service mandatory for all public universities, it adds.
The sector should “move with all speed towards a parity of information from different providers”, the report says.
Without information from private providers, “we risk compromising quality assurance and enhancement, as well as effective student choice”, it says.
It also calls on the government in power after the 2015 general election to introduce a higher education bill “as soon as possible”, advocating the creation of a single regulatory body for all higher education providers in England.
It also advises that “the sector as a whole needs to continue to plan for institutional and programme failure and how these will be managed, in order to protect the interests of students”.
However, it cautions against “centrally-imposed minimum entry requirements” when the student numbers cap is lifted in 2015-16 – a change that is likely to lead to an extra 60,000 students entering the system, according to Treasury estimates.
Libby Hackett, chief executive of University Alliance, said there would be “a more diverse and expanding system after 2015-16 when student number controls are removed”, but the sector’s reputation must be protected via tighter quality controls.
“We need to be thoughtful and careful in safeguarding the reputation of UK higher education” when higher education was becoming more global, she said.
Regulation must be “fit for purpose and suitable for a rapidly changing world”, she added, saying the report “provides some possible solutions”.
Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the report was “timely” and “touches on a number of matters high on the Hefce agenda”.
“We have long been clear - as lead regulator - that only legislation can solve some of the deeper-seated regulatory issues facing English higher education,” Professor Atkins said.
Hefce had been asked by the government to “develop mechanisms to assure the quality of the student experience when student number controls are removed”, as well as “examine how students might be better protected in the event of untoward disruption to their studies,” she added.