The best investment is in stakeholders, not shareholders

Aldwyn Cooper, head of Regent's College, explains why he has no plans to turn a profit if the institution gets degree-awarding powers

June 14, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Easing the criteria for taught degree-awarding powers requires primary legislation. The continued absence of a higher education bill therefore means that the bar remains set at a high level. Arguably, for the protection of the gold-standard reputation of UK higher education, it should stay this way in perpetuity.

However, a corollary of this is that degree-awarding powers have scarcity value - and those who seek to gain profits from higher education are becoming ever more active in attempting to acquire those who have such powers. Five private institutions currently fit the bill. Two are now for-profit and rumours persist about at least one of the others.

Regent's College London is a private, not-for-profit higher education institution with 4,000 students. It has been scrutinised for degree-awarding powers and a decision is expected shortly. Consequently, the college is contacted regularly by investors who seek its acquisition.

The question that we are continually asked at events is: "If you gain taught degree-awarding powers, will you be open to acquisition and become for-profit?" The answer is "no". We have a commitment to maintaining our not-for-profit status.

Historically, the best universities have been established to provide higher education as a public benefit - both to individuals and to the local, national and international communities. The not-for-profit sector, whether partially funded by government or wholly through student fees, reinvests any surplus funds it generates into the continual improvement of the education, the research and the other activities its members support.

This commitment provides genuine independence from the tensions created by the competing interests of shareholder returns and academic quality. The not-for-profit sector should be able to develop a broad portfolio where its elements are determined by academic interest rather than by what will maximise profits. It is important for a rounded student experience and for society that we maintain this breadth.

A higher education experience should not simply be about narrow training for a particular professional or vocational qualification. It should, of course, lead to excellent skills, knowledge and employability, but it should also stimulate broader learning skills, deeper understanding and the opportunity to sample other subjects, perspectives and experiences.

Regent's College is committed to becoming an employer of choice. Over the past five years it has been successful in recruiting better and better staff from across the globe, who are attracted to the not-for-profit sector because they have more confidence that the institution will retain its commitment to academic standards and academic freedom. They expect to see genuine support for research and scholarship and evidence that this is valued.

As for our students, they have a clear expectation that the fees they pay are being devoted to their learning experience and not being used to provide high returns to private investors. Above undergraduate level, students have a strong desire for their tutors to be engaged in current research and actively publishing. To enhance this, we wish to invest more in research, not less, as would be expected if we entered the for-profit sector.

We believe that it is not possible to sustain first-rate higher education unless all staff who interact with students are scholarly active, with a high proportion engaged in either pedagogical or subject-relevant research. This is particularly true at master's and doctoral levels.

Worldwide there is an increasing desire for universities to build true internationalism to enhance development and employability. This includes study abroad, student exchange, collaboration on research and faculty exchange. Again, experience shows that very few for-profit institutions operate in this way.

The problems experienced with some members of the for-profit sector in the US have made national governments and accreditation bodies more doubtful about recognising them.

Finally, we believe strongly in widening access to higher education through bursaries and scholarships, and in contributing to the communities in which we operate, through collaboration with schools, local businesses, other charities and community organisations. As we increase our surpluses, given a choice between profit distribution and public benefit, our staff and students firmly favour the latter.

The for-profit sector can deliver some valuable and potentially cost-effective outcomes for students in some focused fields. However, it is not for us. We want to achieve so much more.

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