Private institutions believe they can help Sir Ron Dearing recommend a policy which is cost-effective and widens access, Kate Worsley reports. Private higher education has much to contribute to the Dearing inquiry, according to Clive Standen, chairman of the umbrella organisation CICRI which represents about 75 per cent of independent institutions.
The Council of Independent Colleges and Research Institutions has more than 30 members, none of which are funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. They range from the British School of Osteopathy to Mountview Theatre School inLondon.
CICRI was asked to contribute to the Dearing terms of reference and asked that at least one member of the committee have experience of the non HEFCE-funded sector and of smaller, specialist institutions.
Mr Standen said: "It is good that a number on the committee have an interest in alternative models, such as Diana Laurillard of the Open University, and Bill Stubbs who has always done a good job."
"We believe that we represent a micro model of what some people would like to see the whole sector moving towards," he said.
"We already use private capital, we get no institutional support, our students are already paying the vast bulk of their fees themselves, our graduate employment rates are very high, we have good links with the industries and professional bodies we serve."
CICRI is asking the Government to recognise the value of the private sector as a cost-effective way to implement its own policy to widen access and increase choice.
"We seem to be in a Catch 22," said Mr Standen. "Each year they say to us how are your student numbers and we say, we've managed to maintain our student intakes and they say, well you obviously don't need help. But we have to work very much harder to generate the students who have the ability and the financial resources to complete the course."
The decline since 1987 in the number of discretionary awards, the wide variations in local education authority policy, and the fixing of mandatory awards for students on designated courses at privately funded colleges at Pounds 840 per year, put students in the independent sector at a disadvantage, according to CICRI.
At the British School of Osteopathy, where Mr Standen is principal, fees for the four-year BA honours course, which leads to a clinical professional qualification, are just over Pounds 5,000 per annum, and students must live in central London for four years.
He would like to see the grant system replaced with some form of income-contingent loan system. "If you graduate with a debt of Pounds 25,000 you will be much more interested in repaying that debt than in taking jobs that will cement the skills you have developed."
CICRI would also like the funding councils to provide institutional funding. "What I'd like for our sector is the opportunity to make bids to the HEFCE. We can help them achieve objectives, such as the target number of science graduates, which is not always met. It might be a relatively modest, non-recurrent grant of say Pounds 1.5 million to increase resources. This would be very helpful to some of us, especially clinic-based courses and anyone having to keep up with an industry's technology."
Mr Standen said he has also had assurances from the Department for Education and Employment that it "might be possible to recognise that 'long-established institutions' such as the 79-year-old BSO 'have achieved a certain level of provision'". If this recognition leads to Government funding then institutions would be open to DFEE representation on their boards to allow control of student numbers.
The public sector could learn a lot from independent institutions, said Mr Standen. Once an institution receives the bulk of its income independently of Government the nature of its relationship with staff and students changes.
"We're the advanced guard, if you like. As a result of being privately funded the financial stresses on students are of a completely different order. If they're not happy with us they are well equipped to tell us. We have very committed students, people sell their homes to come to the BSO. We have a duty not to graduate incompetent people, but we also have a customer relationship with our pupils, because they pay us in hard cash. We're absolutely rigorous in the early stages of the course."
As for staff: "It's not uncommon for people to be teaching people older than themselves. It keeps people on their toes. Also the lack of constraint in decision making in a small autonomous institution, without the heavy hand of the Government, can be very liberating. In the state sector there is always a sense that someone will catch the institution if it gets into trouble, which we don't have."
He emphasised that in pushing for greater recognition member institutions did not wish to grow in size. "Stronger links with other institutions would benefit students. The downside of a monotechnic institution is that people don't interact with other disciplines. That is a limitation which we acknowledge," he said.
"CICRI is a forum for all institutions with professional or validating bodies. There are variations of experience they can learn from. It's an invaluable way of communicating a range of approaches."
Mr Standen is optimistic about Sir Ron Dearing's work: "It is likely that he would approach the issue with an open mind and come up with some good recommendations, but whether the Government is able or minded to act on what he says is a different issue."
Since it was formed in 1991 in response to the proposal to abolish the Council for National Academic Awards, CICRI has lobbied successfully for the inclusion of a clause in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act allowing groups of colleges to seek joint degree-awarding powers. A CICRI representative has joined the Council of Validating Universities.