Questions on oversight for England’s 30K ‘subcontracted’ students

Figures show that thousands of students registered at some universities are taught elsewhere

April 24, 2019
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The oversight of “franchised” higher education in England under the country’s new regulatory regime has been spotlighted after figures showed that some universities subcontract the teaching of thousands of students to private providers.

Data from the Office for Students suggest that more than 30,000 undergraduates will be enrolled at a university in 2018-19 but will actually be taught elsewhere for part or all of this year.

Many of them will be pursuing a university degree at a further education college. But there are also examples of alternative providers that are teaching large numbers of students through arrangements known as “franchised” provision.

In the past, such arrangements would have been considered by the Quality Assurance Agency when it carried out periodic reviews of a university or if specific concerns were raised. In some circumstances, the alternative providers themselves might also have been reviewed directly.

However, the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act has made the OfS register of providers the focus of regulation – and private providers that offer franchised provision do not have to apply for the register, raising questions about the oversight of such partnerships.

The Higher Education Students Early Statistics survey shows that three institutions – the University of Roehampton, the University of Suffolk and Bucks New University – have more than 1,000 undergraduates being taught by an alternative provider that is currently not on the OfS register, although in all three cases the provider is seeking registration.

Roehampton had the most, with 3,700 instances of undergraduates receiving subcontracted teaching this year from a company called QA Higher Education. QA has arrangements with five UK universities and offers a range of provision including full degrees and “pathway” provision for international students.

A Roehampton spokeswoman said that its partnership with QA on undergraduate degrees started in 2015, although September 2019 would see the last intake of students under the arrangement.

Suffolk, which is forecast to have almost 1,800 students subcontracted to a private provider called the London School of Commerce this year, said that it started working with the institution – part of a wider company called St Piran’s School (GB) – in 2016.

It said that it had a number of initiatives to ensure that the partnership “delivers a good student experience”, such as regular joint meetings between the institutions, linked provision with Suffolk academics and opportunities for students learning at LSC to speak to Suffolk staff if needed.

Both LSC and divisions of QA Higher Education – as well as Bucks New’s major franchise partner, the University Campus of Football Business – have undergone successful reviews by the QAA in the past.

An OfS spokeswoman said that under the new arrangements, the provider with which students were enrolled had “contractual responsibility” for them, irrespective of whether another provider was teaching them.

“The quality of the provision is covered by the registration of the lead providers, and our monitoring of quality and standards through conditions of registration covers all of the registered provider’s students, wherever they are taught,” she said.

“We monitor through lead indicators and reportable events. If either flagged concerns about subcontractual arrangements, we would investigate further,” she added.

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