Further questions have been raised about the government’s plans to open up English higher education to alternative providers by a report that finds that smaller, newer institutions are less likely to meet sector standards.
An analysis conducted by the Quality Assurance Agency says that 19 of the higher education reviews of alternative providers it conducted in the past two years concluded that institutions met or exceeded expectations in all areas, while eight of the reviews uncovered shortcomings.
Significantly, alternative providers that had positive reviews tended to be larger – the majority had more than 100 students – longer-established, and working with universities as awarding bodies.
Unsuccessful judgements were directed primarily at providers with small numbers of students, including one, Luton International College, which had no learners at the time of the review but “had aspirations to recruit overseas students”.
The majority of these institutions had been in existence for fewer than 12 years and often offered qualifications by non-university awarding agencies.
This raises questions about the government’s plan in the higher education White Paper to allow new providers to award their own degrees on a probationary basis from the day that they open, without the oversight of an awarding university, and to scrap the minimum student numbers threshold, currently 1,000, for institutions hoping to gain university title.
The QAA says that institutions that failed higher education review typically had “a limited understanding of higher education in general”, and showed “superficial engagement” with the requirements of the Quality Code.
“The ability to teach and enable students to learn at higher levels is, therefore, compromised,” the report says.
However, the QAA says that successful reviews of the New College of the Humanities, established in 2012, and the London School of Business and Management, founded in 2000, show that new providers “can, and do, add to the richness of the higher education sector”.
Under current rules, passing higher education review is a key requirement for institutions that wish to recruit international students.
The QAA report says that 19 of the 23 providers that were inspected (four of them were re-reviewed) were located in the London area, with 12 clustered within a one-mile radius in the centre of the capital.
Although the total number of inspections is small, the proportion of unsatisfactory reviews appears to be increasing. In 2013-14, one of seven providers inspected failed to meet standards, and in 2014-15 seven of 20 fell short.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of private, non-profit Regent’s University London and chair of the Independent Universities Group, said that the government needed to offer reassurance over the standards of providers that would be admitted to the sector.
“There are some quite excellent institutions in the alternative provider sector that are delivering first-rate student experience and good employment outcomes,” Professor Cooper said. “The issue here is the extent to which any institution is able to set in place all the processes that are required to deliver a quality higher education to its students.”
Will Naylor, the QAA’s director of quality assurance, said that more mature providers had benefited from long-term engagement with the watchdog’s reviews.
“We have definitely seen a trend for older and larger establishments to perform better in QAA review than those that are newer and smaller,” Mr Naylor said.