Room for a profitable view

High-quality private provision widens choice, maintains standards and has a vital role to play, argues Carl Lygo

February 16, 2012

The ordinary person might be forgiven for thinking that the reform of higher education in England has already happened. After all, in September tuition fees for students will rise by more than 200 per cent at most universities; a new student-loan scheme will be in place; the fixed-quota system for allocating funded places will be relaxed to enable greater competition for high-achieving students; and an auction process for 20,000 places will be introduced.

Further reforms to VAT have been announced that will enable universities to save money on hidden costs by sharing services, and the financial settlement the government recently communicated to the Higher Education Funding Council for England has led some commentators to suggest that 15,000 fewer funded undergraduate places will be made available at a time when youth unemployment has reached a record high. So this is hardly a government that can be accused of ducking the difficult issues in higher education.

There is plenty of evidence that change can happen without primary legislation, so even if the coalition delays its higher education bill, its reforms can still progress. Its plans include allowing more private providers to obtain degree-awarding powers and increasing competition by allowing "award-only" degree providers to offer greater choice and diversity to students. Worldwide, private higher education is growing as governments simply cannot afford to continue to fund the old system where only a tiny elite of the population attended university.

Critics who have an interest in maintaining the status quo point to the US as a cause for concern, but it has some of the world's best private institutions, such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and Stanford University. Embracing a private model of higher education does not mean standards have to be compromised.

In 2004, the Labour government modernised the criteria for granting degree-awarding powers in the UK. Since then, some of the country's most prestigious private providers in specialist fields have gained such powers. Winning them is an exacting process: it rightly requires the highest standards to be consistently demonstrated over time, reviewed by academic peers in the publicly funded universities.

The fact that the best private providers have these powers has not opened the floodgates, nor has it damaged the reputation of the UK as a higher education community because the highest standards have been demanded from newcomers to the sector. The UK's high standards must be maintained: no short cuts should be permitted, otherwise the entire sector will lose out. Any proposal to relax these benchmarks must be properly scrutinised, so it remains to be seen whether the government can further alter the route to degree-awarding powers without primary legislation.

BPP University College is an autonomous UK private provider that works with employers to offer degree programmes tailored to work and to the professions of accounting, business, law and finance. Almost one-third of entrants to the legal profession and two-thirds of all accountants in the UK are educated by BPP at some point in their careers.

While Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data show a 9.9 per cent decrease in applications to English universities, BPP has benefited from a 139 per cent increase because we are prepared to challenge the educational status quo in regards to the pricing of degree programmes. Our fees range from the equivalent of £4,000 to £5,000 a year for undergraduate degrees, with the option of study through the traditional long summer holidays so that they can be completed in two years. We offer significant scholarships and employ full-time faculty who have been practitioners of their disciplines.

The model does not suit everyone, but the CBI's employer survey last year indicated that private providers best meet the needs of employers. There is room for a high-quality private sector in the UK that challenges the educational status quo - and the delay to the higher education bill will not stop it developing.

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