Struggling colleges reach for BPP life raft in a bid to stay afloat

Chief executive 'interested' in running excellent departments closed by cuts. Simon Baker reports

August 19, 2010

Struggling universities and colleges are seeking partnerships with Britain's only for-profit university college in a bid to survive the harsh economic climate, according to its chief executive.

Carl Lygo said that since BPP University College, which awards its own degrees in business and law, was given the title last month, he had been contacted about "opportunities" at publicly funded higher education institutions that were at risk of failing financially.

He said a senior manager at one institution told him that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had suggested seeking a partnership with a private provider.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Lygo said the approaches were an example of how the university college title finally meant that BPP was being accepted as part of mainstream UK higher education.

He also revealed that the company, which is majority owned by the US Apollo Group, was taking its UK degree-awarding powers abroad for the first time this autumn by offering master's degrees in accountancy at its business academy in Amsterdam.

Mr Lygo praised most vice-chancellors for being "very supportive" of BPP and its new status, although he said he was disappointed that other players, such as the University and College Union, still opposed the firm without backing up their opinions with facts.

"There is very little difference between BPP and a good, well-run university. The kind of people I have in charge are the kind of people you would find in the public sector - just the good people," he said. "It is not about taking over or taking your students, it is about adding value to the whole sector."

Now you're keen

The funding outlook for higher education could hardly be more bleak: universities have already been hit by more than £1 billion in cuts and the Cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, is reported to have warned vice-chancellors to prepare for a further 35 per cent cut in government funding after the Comprehensive Spending Review in October.

Last month, a survey by PA Consulting found that three-quarters of responding vice-chancellors believe that some universities will "fail or disappear" in the next three years.

Mr Lygo said that before it was announced that BPP had won university college status, he had "reached out" to struggling institutions to propose partnerships or even takeovers of departments that were losing money.

"Apart from one university, nobody got back to me. Since we've had the university college announcement, I've had people ringing me up," he said.

"There are lots of small colleges that are struggling financially in this environment. They think that with the help of BPP and a common infrastructure, they'd have a better chance of surviving."

He added: "One particular college representative who came to see me earlier this week told me that Hefce had advised it to seek private partnerships and approach somebody like BPP."

A Hefce spokesman said he was not aware of this advice being issued, but added that the funding council would encourage struggling institutions to look at "a range of solutions" to help them gain a sustainable footing.

Mr Lygo said that although BPP's expansion plans revolved around moving into other career-focused areas such as teaching and health, the institution would be "interested" in running traditional academic departments - especially "excellent" university departments that had been forced to close their doors.

He said: "It seems to me to be a great shame that some departments that are excellent are being forced to close - I would be interested if anyone wants to talk to me, whether it's history, English, philosophy or politics. I'm interested because why wouldn't we want to be associated with excellence in higher education?"

This week and next, BPP will be concentrating on attracting candidates through clearing - offering accounting and business degrees for undergraduates that can be completed in two years, three years or part-time, with total fees of just under £10,000 for home students.

As has been widely reported, the rush for places is likely to be more frantic than ever this year, with between 150,000 and 200,000 prospective students expected to miss out on places.

But Mr Lygo warned that BPP was not a "soft option", adding that it would be selective about those it recruited for its courses through clearing.

"We are not going to be the saviour of the government and take in 50,000 students: (the number accepted) will be in the low hundreds," he said.

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