Will likes of Google and Facebook really offer degrees in the UK?

Experts mull over Jo Johnson’s aim to open sector to foreign companies and universities

May 23, 2016
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Why isn’t this taking? Nick Hillman thinks the government’s plans are more likely to be of interest to established foreign universities than to Google or Facebook

Tradition dictates that Her Majesty deliver the Queen’s Speech in a formal, even bored, monotone so as to convey political neutrality. But the implications from legislation announced in her speech “to support the establishment of new universities and to promote choice and competition” are far from dry matters for English higher education and those who work and study in it.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, gave a more dramatic description of plans to allow “high quality” new providers to award their own degrees from the get-go (rather than having to gain a four-year teaching track record) when he spoke to Times Higher Education ahead of the publication of the White Paper.

“If a Harvard or a Google or a Massachusetts Institute of Technology or an Indian Institute of Technology wants to come and set up and offer their own degrees, we want them to be able to do so,” he said. Other articles on the White Paper have also mentioned Facebook as potentially the sort of company that might benefit from the reforms.

So what sorts of companies or institutions can we really expect to try to offer degrees in England under the government’s plan to bring in new providers to compete with established universities?

THE contacted Google and Facebook, highlighting the media reports and asking if the companies might consider offering degrees in England.

“We don’t have anything to add to this story,” said a spokeswoman in Google’s London press office.

“I’m afraid we’ve got nothing to add,” said a spokesman for Facebook in London, demonstrating that US tech giants have a remarkably similar way of expressing lack of interest in a media enquiry.

FTSE 100 firm Pearson, which describes itself as “the world’s largest education company”, is perhaps the leading candidate to make a big commercial investment in English higher education.

But the company has already established Pearson College London, which offers degrees validated by Royal Holloway, University of London, and has started on the traditional four-year track record in teaching path to degree-awarding powers.

Roxanne Stockwell, vice-president of higher education awards at Pearson and principal of Pearson College London, said that she was “not sure to what extent” the White Paper’s moves to open the sector “will impact on us specifically”.

She added: “We have always planned to move towards degree-awarding powers as soon as we can and steadily grow over the next five to 10 years.”

But Ms Stockwell said that the government’s plans could “potentially make it easier for [English] universities to create further universities if they wanted to, which I think is quite fascinating”, establishing “subsidiaries on a fresh start basis in terms of their regulatory framework or…more suited to a particular niche”.

Coventry University is the only English institution to have so far created such a venture, in its lower-fee offshoot focusing on students with lower entry grades.

And what about the idea of companies such as Google or Facebook creating universities?

“At Pearson, we are an education company,” Ms Stockwell said. “The amount of work that’s involved in setting something up and learning about the regulatory processes [in higher education] and how to apply them is quite huge.”

She added: “If I step out to a completely different company that doesn’t have any of that already – it would have to be something pretty central to their strategy to make it worth doing.”

But Ms Stockwell added that given the UK’s “skills shortage areas in technology” alongside greater policy focus on apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships, “you can see a spectrum of activity there, where potentially degrees that are designed and validated by companies around their areas of specialism” might be attractive as a concept.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities minister, said that his experience of policy on alternative providers in government was that the press were “always more interested if they thought it was a Google or a Facebook”.

He added that a minister will sometimes use the position as a “bully pulpit”, and that naming such companies might force them to consider whether they would be interested and thus “help your agenda to move forward”.

But Mr Hillman said that in his view, the government plans were more likely to be of interest to established foreign universities “rather than Google or Facebook”, as those tech companies have “no experience of delivering education”.

However, it seems even one of the overseas universities mentioned by Mr Johnson did not have any imminent plans to enter the UK market. Richard Lester, associate provost for international activities at MIT, said it “does not establish branch campuses and has no plans to do so in the UK”.

Mr Hillman also suggested that “big global corporations” that are already education providers could be candidates to enter the English sector.

US for-profit higher education firms may be looking for alternative markets given the tightening of regulations in their backyard, following a series of scandals and controversies over for-profit recruitment practices.

One overseas institution that has already established itself in London is India’s Amity University, owned by the non-profit foundation of a for-profit company. The university has about 100,000 students across its campuses in India.

However, while the institution is allowed by the Westminster government to describe itself as a university in the UK (where it is known as Amity University [in] London), it does not have UK degree-awarding powers and thus cannot have official university title.

Atul Chauhan, Amity’s chancellor, called the government’s plans “transformational”.

He added: “Amity is definitely looking at getting degree-awarding powers, and we are tracking these new developments closely.” But Mr Chauhan said that he was “not sure whether other Indian universities will come as it is very expensive to operate a campus in the UK”.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology at the University of Cambridge, suggested that plans to grant degree-awarding powers to new providers from the get-go on a probationary basis ignore “the established principle requiring evidence of ‘a well-founded, cohesive and self-critical academic community’ before degree-awarding powers are granted”.

And she argued that new providers were likely to hire staff “on hourly and zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching with minimum requirements of qualification or experience”, which “hardly seems likely to ‘drive up’ teaching standards”.

Whether new entrants, overseas or domestic, do take up the government’s offer remains to be seen. And the working conditions they will offer remain a matter of speculation.

But those running English universities, along with all those who work in the sector, will probably be talking about these plans in something other than a bored monotone given their significance for the future.


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