Universities too ‘reactionary’ on private college ‘challenge’

For-profit college head Paul Kirkham calls for ‘respectful’ treatment of private providers

March 19, 2016
Grumpy man with fingers in ears
Source: Alamy

The head of a for-profit college has criticised “vested interests” and a “reactionary response to challenge” among established universities.

Paul Kirkham, chief executive of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, was speaking at a Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) event on private providers, titled “Challenger institutions – useful competition or unhelpful disruption?”

He said that the “headlines about [alternative providers] are almost exclusively negative, focusing on those providers who probably should never have been allowed in or [would not have been] allowed to grow in the first place had sector and legislative oversight been properly effected.

“The fact is there are many reputable alternatives out there, providing specialist, bespoke education and training to students who, lest we forget, consciously choose such an alternative – for very good reasons.”

He argued that private colleges enhance “sector diversity and entrepreneurialism” by developing non-traditional methods of study and courses in new subject areas.

Such providers can change quickly and “react to student and market need and take risks in a way public HEIs perhaps cannot”, Mr Kirkham continued. “Just imagine how much more they could achieve were they to be given equitable and respectful treatment.”

Citing coverage by Times Higher Education of the rapid growth in Student Loans Company funding for students at private providers, Mr Kirkham said that in 2014-15 these students accounted for “no more than 2.5 per cent of total student loans”.

He said that this “raises the question of why so much fear and sensationalism is aroused by such a small subsection of the sector – perhaps this speaks to bigger issues of insecurity and ideology”.

SLC funding for students at private providers grew from £30 million in 2010 to £723.6 million in 2013-14, before falling to £533.6 million the following year when the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills introduced student number controls at private colleges.

In 2015, the Public Accounts Committee criticised BIS over the expansion at private colleges. Margaret Hodge, then chair of the committee, said that the growth had been “extraordinary” and that BIS had “ignored repeated warnings about the potential waste and abuse of public money intended to support legitimate students and institutions”.

Addressing concerns among critics that some private colleges are “not properly quality controlled and risk bringing the reputation of UK higher education into disrepute”, Mr Kirkham suggested that publicly funded institutions had had their own fair share of problems.

He said that his own institution was “as heavily regulated, if not more so, than any public provider”.

Mr Kirkham said that the attitudes that position “the three-year full-time degree and the university as being the ultimate gold standard have been fuelled over the decades by vested interests.

“When there is a significant estate to be utilised, a highly unionised workforce to be managed, significant levels of executive pay to be protected and enhanced, and high levels of reliable public funding, there will inevitably be a reactionary response to challenge and little incentive to truly innovate and reduce costs.”


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