For-profit takeover of Regent’s University London raises concerns

Institution says proposed buyout will ‘secure the university well into the future’ but former v-c fears move will damage its reputation

August 24, 2020
Regent's University London
Source: iStock

One of the UK’s biggest private non-profit universities is set to be bought by a for-profit education firm in a move that the institution’s former vice-chancellor said was “devastating”.

Regent’s University London announced recently that it would be joining Galileo Global Education’s network, “subject to completion of regulatory approvals and property matters”.

The Paris-based and private equity-owned Galileo runs 42 schools across 80 campuses in 13 countries around the world, attended by more than 110,000 students in total. Regent’s would be its first UK-based venture, although its portfolio includes the Italian fashion institution Istituto Marangoni, which is headquartered in Milan but has branch campuses in several other cities including London.

A spokeswoman for Regent’s said that under the proposed partnership the university would transfer to a new company wholly owned by Galileo. As part of the transfer, Galileo would make “a significant investment in the residual charity which would allow it to support students’ lives, in accordance with our charitable objects”, she said.

She added that unlike most UK universities, Regent’s has been ineligible for funding under the government’s higher education restructuring regime or research stabilisation support during the pandemic.

“Partnership with Galileo would strengthen and secure the university well into the future,” she said, adding that it would “expand our international reach and further strengthen our international reputation”.

But Aldwyn Cooper, former vice-chancellor and chief executive of Regent’s, who led the institution for more than 12 years before retiring in July 2019 and oversaw its transition from a college to a university with degree-awarding powers, said the institution’s board had previously agreed that a for-profit takeover of Regent’s “would never, ever happen”.

“We were proud of being a charity and of the charitable work that we were doing. We felt that was the right way to go,” he said.

“Of course, I’m very depressed by it because I built the thing, working with an excellent, dedicated team of academics and staff. Changes were necessary, undoubtedly, but not this change.”

Professor Cooper said he understood that the basis for the takeover was a “worst-case forecast” by PriceWaterhouseCoopers “which said that if Regent’s failed to reach its targets by 45 per cent then it would be bankrupt next year”.

However, he questioned why the institution did not “wait until the recruitment figures [for this year] were in before making such a devastating decision”, adding that Regent’s was “a financially sound, internationally respected institution” when he retired a year ago.

“I fear that the decision has been [made] to protect the private interests of the trustees who could be held personally liable for university debts, as has been used to justify similar actions elsewhere, rather than the philosophy and values of the institution and the education of the students,” he said.

The Regent’s spokeswoman responded that the university’s trustees “were not seeking to protect their own interests” and “their concerns were focused on the interests of the university’s students”.

Professor Cooper added that Regent’s partners with “a large number of top institutions around the world” and he was concerned that Galileo’s portfolio, which he judged to include “quite second-rate” institutions, may bring down Regent’s reputation. Eighty per cent of the university’s students come from outside the UK.

He feared that the proposed sale to Galileo may also lead to significant staff redundancies and shift Regent’s towards online delivery of education, which he said was not part of the university’s ethos.

“I’m already getting a lot of correspondence from alumni, foreign students, staff, honorary senior fellows and partner institutions who are really not at all happy [about the proposed sale],” he said.

The Regent’s spokeswoman said that it “cannot rule out staff redundancies” but it would “seek to minimise these where we can”.

“With 80 per cent of our students from outside the UK, travel restrictions around the globe may well have a negative impact on new student enrolments,” she said.

She added that Regent’s has been working closely with the Office for Students, the Charity Commission and other regulators in developing the proposal.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (5)

Professor Cooper’s cri de coeur is touching but probably a bit too personal, mistrusting and exaggerated. There’s little chance of the new owners trashing the brand if it’s that good- why would they? And people don’t associate other members of a group with a trash brand. Regents will still be Regents. If they can grow the business redundancies will be much less a concern than they would otherwise be.
This has echoes of the College of Law sale to private equity. There are very significant questions arising under charity law in such a transaction - perhaps the Charity Commission could be persuaded to issue a statement to explain how these are being addressed?
Sounds like disgruntlement and delusion from a former VC. It's well known the University was making a loss when he left. The deal seems like a lifeline and an opportunity - well done Regent's for taking it!
Aldwyn Cooper should hang his head in shame at the havoc he wreaked at Regent's instead of pestering a dynamic new management team doing a very good job picking up the pieces. Cooper's terrible misreading of the HE market made Regent's very vulnerable to any downturn. He lost millions with his foolish takeover of failed AIU; he added incredible overheads by padding senior management layers with superfluous sycophants; and he sized the back office not for the 3500 students Regent's had but for the 8000 students he predicted it would get once its reputation surpassed Oxbridge's. Seriously - that is the sort of nonsense Cooper used to communicate, and woe to anyone who dared disagree. His was catastrophic management driven by egotism rather than intelligence. Geoff S. and the new team are rational, humble and very smart. They should be highly commended for saving Regent's with this very promising Galileo deal - and THE really shouldn't be creating needless controversy by airing a discredited King Lear
Cooper did indeed make many mistakes, but under the guidance and supervison of the trustees. They are as responsible for the downfall as the directorate. What a shame that an institution is given away for free when you should raise donations from alumni and NPO partners.

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