'Risky' business feared as private college closes in on degree powers

UUK 'positive' about Regent's membership, but critics demand proper scrutiny. John Morgan writes

March 15, 2012

One of the UK's largest private colleges is nearing the final stage in its bid to attain taught degree-awarding powers - with success meaning that it could also join Universities UK.

The Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers will consider the application from not-for-profit Regent's College on 22 March. It may then make a recommendation to the Quality Assurance Agency board and the Privy Council for final approval.

Only five institutions outside the state-funded sector currently have degree-awarding powers, while only one of those - the University of Buckingham - is a member of UUK. Success for Regent's College could make it the second private provider to join the group, which represents vice-chancellors in government talks.

Aldwyn Cooper, principal of the college - the third-largest private provider in 2009-10, with 4,000 students - said that Nicola Dandridge, the UUK chief executive, had been "very positive about the prospect of the college joining UUK if it gains degree-awarding powers".

Critics of the college's bid for degree powers are concerned about the structure of the central London institution, which is divided into seven schools in subject areas ranging from business to psychotherapy.

Gill Evans, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge and expert on higher education governance, raised doubts about how "integrated" the college was and said granting degree-awarding powers therefore "seems unnecessarily risky".

"This could open the floodgates. Private providers which are 'works in progress' may not develop as promised or could sell out to a purchaser which has not been subject to the same scrutiny," she said.

Meanwhile, Sally Hunt, University and College Union general secretary, warned against handing degree-awarding powers "to more private providers before they are properly regulated".

She said such colleges were "escaping the kind of transparency and public scrutiny that regulates the conduct of established universities and colleges".

But Professor Cooper said degree-awarding powers would be "for the benefit of students", enabling all courses to be under a single set of academic regulations, instead of the varying rules required by the different departments of the universities currently validating the college's degrees. The powers would also give the college official recognition internationally.

He added that Regent's College was "probably the most collegiate and integrated institution in London", and was divided into two faculties "which provide all the academic teaching to students studying all our programmes".

However, with a private equity firm aiming to buy the College of Law mainly because of its degree-awarding powers, Regent's College could become similarly attractive to for-profit buyers.

"We would certainly be a target but we wouldn't be a welcoming target," said Professor Cooper. The college has a strategic plan to remain a charity and has previously turned down a buyout offer of "at least £200 million" even without degree-awarding powers, he added.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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