The Quality Assurance Agency has highlighted how many private colleges have not passed its checks after business secretary Vince Cable questioned standards at some providers.
Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Glasgow on 7 October, Mr Cable said he had concerns about the value of the “cheap and cheerful courses” that had received public funding since 2012.
While many of the private providers that gained access to tuition fee loans were “very good, outstanding, innovation institutions”, there was “a lot of dross” that had received public funds, he said.
In response to Mr Cable’s comments, Stephen Jackson, director of quality assurance at the QAA, pointed to a number of private colleges that had not passed the QAA’s review – a check that is required if institutions want to recruit overseas students or receive public funding.
“Since beginning this work, 78 private colleges that initially applied for QAA review were rejected or withdrew,” said Dr Jackson.
“Forty-six of the private colleges that did make it to review failed to achieve positive judgements on standards, quality or information,” he added.
But Dr Jackson also said that he wanted to “echo the secretary of state’s views in that we have found many private colleges to be delivering a quality higher education experience”.
The total bill for public-backed student support at private providers is projected to soar to nearly £1 billion this year, according to government figures, after the coalition encouraged private colleges to play a greater role in the provision of higher education.
However, the business secretary said the benefits from increased private provision were “ambiguous”.
Mr Cable told the meeting, which was co-hosted by the Social Market Foundation thinktank and the Sutton Trust, that “the aspect of [the expansion of student numbers] that worries me…is that what we have done is opened the door to private sector alternative providers, including for-profit companies”.
Asked why he had allowed his powers to grant for-profit colleges that were in his own words “dross” access to public funding, Mr Cable replied: “I brought in fairly draconian controls about a year ago when we discovered that there was abuse in the sector.
“The reason why we can’t just say ‘this is a nuisance and it costs money, let’s close the whole lot down’ – there is a legal reason and there are legitimate institutions. As the law stands at present, their students can gain access to student grants and loans.”