Universities should not fear potential private sector involvement in quality assurance, according to a senior figure at a company that could bid for the work in England.
Jon Baldwin, managing director of market development at Tribal Group, an education support services firm, told Times Higher Education that private sector involvement in areas such as quality assurance is the “logical next step” following the growth of private colleges.
Tribal is one of a number of companies reportedly approached on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for England to explore whether they could bid for work under the new system of quality assurance, in which six tenders with a combined value of £11 million over five years are to replace the single contract currently held by the Quality Assurance Agency.
Mr Baldwin, the former registrar of three UK institutions including the University of Warwick, said that Tribal was reflecting on the proposed arrangements “in some detail”. Tribal “may be interested practically”, according to Mr Baldwin, who did not rule out the submission of joint bids with other sector agencies.
“We have a long track record of shared activity and we think we have delivered our responsibilities well, so from there we will think about how our experience can be potentially useful as the new arrangements emerge,” he said.
Tribal might be considered a good fit for some of the tenders given its background in providing benchmarking tools to the sector and in collecting student data through its i-graduate arm.
Mr Baldwin said he had “never quite understood” some academics’ outright objection to private companies’ involvement in higher education, especially when many vice-chancellors would baulk at the idea that they were running public bodies.
“I think it is a mistake to exclude the idea on principled grounds or to suggest that the private sector can add nothing to the higher education quality system; I think it can,” Mr Baldwin said. “As the sector itself broadens with the admission of more private institutions, some of them for-profit and some of them not, isn’t it the next logical step to see how we harness the talent and experience and the history of appropriate private sector organisations in some of the structures that surround higher education? And quality assurance is one of those.”
Mr Baldwin acknowledged that concerns might stem from the controversies accompanying private sector involvement in delivery of other public functions, such as in immigration control, but he highlighted that there were a “multiplicity of examples” of positive collaborations between the private sector and universities, such as in international recruitment, accommodation and research.
He acknowledged that the potential for a company to monitor standards in an institution that purchased services from the same firm needed to be addressed, but said he was “confident” that systems to avoid conflicts of interest could be developed.
The tenders are set to be awarded next month, ahead of piloting in 2016-17. Capita and Serco are also among the companies that are said to have been approached, while sector agencies apart from the QAA that are seen as potential bidders include the Higher Education Academy, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the British Accreditation Council.