Overseas Universities in England

Regulation of higher education in England recognises that there are circumstances where international higher education providers are operating here, but that they may not be subject to the same rules as an English provider is. This is fine, as long as its not confusing for students, particularly if they think they might be at a regulated provider, offering a UK degree and having access to support from the government.

International mobility is a crucial part of the global higher education system and a large proportion of the overseas universities based in England are the study-abroad base of a university. Such providers can sponsor students, and the UKVI register includes the following:

Boston University London ProgrammeLondon
Florida State University International Programs Association UKLondon
Fordham UniversityLondon
Georgetown University (USA) UK Initiatives OrganisationLondon
Harding UniversityLondon
Harlaxton CollegeGrantham
Ithaca CollegeLondon
James Madison University & JMU Overseas Programs LtdLondon
Lawrence University London CentreLondon
Luther College Study CentreNottingham
NYU in LondonLondon
Pepperdine University UK LtdLondon
PHBS-UK (Peking University Business School)Oxford
Samford University London Study CentreLondon
St George’s International School of Medicine LimitedWinchester
St. Cloud State UniversityAlnwick
St. Lawrence University (USA) London ProgrammeLondon
Syracuse University London ProgramLondon
The Aga Khan University (International) in the United KingdomLondon
University of Chicago Booth School of BusinessLondon
University of North CarolinaLondon
University of Notre DameLondon
Wroxton College of Fairleigh Dickinson UniversityBanbury

It’s no surprise that London dominates the list of destinations, but there’s also a representation of a ‘country house’ model at Alnwick, Harlaxton and Wroxton. St Cloud University, based at Alnwick, which was the location for the early Harry Potter films, doesn’t muck about with its imagery. At Alnwick, students take the courses offered by a staff member who’s also travelled to Northumberland.

There are several variants of an ’embedded model’, where an overseas university is working in partnership with a UK university. Students are based at premises of the branch, but are integrated to a greater or lesser extent with a nearby UK university. Tieko University has a group of thirty students from the parent university taking English language courses in Durham. NYU has had a longstanding link with the University of London, and now shares facilities with Birkbeck while running courses for over 500 students.

Stanford’s English operation has migrated from the country house to the embedded model. It was based first at Harlaxton, then moved to Cliveden and is now in Oxford, in premises owned by Magdalen College, supporting embedded Stanford students on study-year. The University of Georgia has a large house in North Oxford where it offers its own courses (modules) in semesters and a summer programme.

It should be noted that these Oxford outposts are not on the UKVI sponsor register; it’s not necessary to sponsor students to visit for shorter periods of study as part of courses in the home country. To be on the UKVI register requires an overseas HEI to have an Student Educational Oversight inspection from the QAA. A judgment is made as to whether the learning opportunities meets UK expectations and that it is managing its responsibilities for academic standards satisfactorily (for example, QAA’s latest review of NYU London was completed in March 2021).

Transnational Education (TNE) is regulated on a differential basis across the world, generally there being some form of baseline regulation for overseas universities. If an overseas university doesn’t want to sponsor students’ visas or access student loan funding, it can still be here and DfE have clarified the rules. DfE are clear that for an overseas provider to use ‘university’ in a company or trading name, they must obtain a ‘non-objection letter’ from them. These include being very clear that it’s not an English university – and will include putting the full name of your home country in the agreed name. It’s quite complex to find who DfE have issued ‘non-objection letters’ too (in 2019 DfE refused to provide a list of organisations who had received a letter) and it’s not clear whether they are going to apply these rules retrospectively).

An example of charting a course between all these different rules is Azad University (IR) in Oxford where students on the masters courses come to Oxford for a semester having started in Iran first. Students can enrol on their short courses, just based in England. This university, in the countryside between Oxford and Eynsham, needs no educational regulation.

While OfS issues press releases about clamp downs and crackdowns, and extends the scope of its regulation to English providers operating overseas, it seems curious that providers can set up in the UK and, if they decline the opportunity to sponsor students or seek student loan funding, they can operate on a caveat emptor basis. Asking students to check various lists to find whether a university has engaged with the gold standard measures necessary for, say OfS Registration or UKVI Sponsorship, if that’s not necessary for your purposes, seems complex. While bodies like HEDD will list the properly bogus places, there’s potentially a tail of providers remaining outside the regulatory framework. The new rules on titles that DfE have set out mitigates a key risk of overseas universities giving the impression they are UK universities, but they need to remain alert to a group of providers which might threaten the controlled reputational range of the regulated sector.

When we had Conservative Colleges

There’s been a spirted call to found a conservative university in the UK. Make what you will of his argument, but Stuart Major was clearly convinced that such a thing was a new notion. This is not so. Firstly, of course, the Americans have been calling for this for ages. For example, at the end of his polemic ‘Brainwashed’ Ben Shapiro called for donors to switch their funds from liberal colleges to conservative start-up colleges, this was back in 2004.

If concentrating on the UK, we should note that although not formally a conservative university, it’s hard to ignore that Buckingham is pretty much that. It may not say so anywhere, but from its opening by Margaret Thatcher there’s a fairly clear streak of conservative thinking there.

But what if there were actual Conservative Party higher education providers? And ones set up purposively to counter left-wing providers. And it started a hundred years ago? The Conservative Party had successively, if not ultimately successfully, founded three colleges.

Stott College, based in Overstone Hall Northamptonshire, which was donated by architect Sir Philip Stott in 1923, would focus on courses for conservative trade unionists. It was not successful and was sold in 1929, when the prospect of a larger, better located, college was in train.

Overstone Hall

The Bonar Law College was founded in 1929. Urban Broughton endowed the Bonar Law Memorial Trust with Ashridge, with the objects in the Trust Deed:

(a) To honour the memory of a great Statesman (Andrew Bonar Law).

(b) To preserve a great and beautiful historical building from destruction.

(c) To cause the Mansion House and Gardens and Park to be used for the purposes of an Educational Centre or College for educating persons in Economics, in Political and Social Science, in Political History, with special reference to the development of the British Constitution and the growth and expansion of the British Empire, and in such other subjects as the Governing Body may from time to time deem desirable.

Ashridge House

The story of Ashridge has been excellently told by Clarisse Berthezène. She notes how the Conservative Party had a great fear of the left, of socialism, and worried that they were losing the battle of ideas. The college would train party agents and workers, but also provide a venue for the debate of these ideas. Berthezène notes that the inspiration was partly the various adult colleges associated with both workers and trades unions movements, but also the Fabianism that inspired the LSE. In common with other adult colleges, Ashridge ran short courses in a mixture of weekend and one and two week-long residential mode, There were also longer sessions, starting at three months but then being eight and then four weeks long. Berthezène tracks key conservative ideas in the 1930s and their discussion in the college, where leading Tories gave lectures.

The war stopped this activity. Berthezène explains how attempts to revive it struggled, even though the idea of a ‘conservative university’ was not abandoned (p218). With the Conservative Party centralising its political education functions, and Ashridge stressing its autonomy, the links weakened. New leadership focused on one of the major themes of post-war education, training for business. This was not inconsistent with the educational character set out in the Trust, but it slowly transformed into a management school. The formal links with the Conservative Party ended.

As before, the Party decided to reinvent the same model. This time the new College has a looser attachment to the new house, being the guests of Lord Swinton. Over 50,000 Conservative activists, agents and other students took courses there between 1948 and 1975. Andrew Gimson noting how the same model of guest lecturers in a residential setting took over. There’s a short film of Swinton College in action here.

Swinton Park - Historic UK
Swinton Park

Swinton College also closed. Although schemes to revive such a college have been floated, this has not come forward. Ashridge continued to develop, gaining degree awarding powers in 2014 and operationally merging with Hult International Business School in 2014. Both Hult and Ashridge are registered with the OfS.

It’s tempting to compare Stuart Major’s call with the atmosphere that Clarisse Berthezène describes. Ashridge was first founded at a time of ‘exaggerated fear of the influence of Fabian Socialism over British political and intellectual life, at a time when, in electoral terms, the Conservative party was largely dominant’ (pp15-16). There were also new ways of communicating to the expanding electorate (Berthezène notes the Conservatives were early adopters of ‘cinema vans’ to broadcast their message) to worry about. A college founded in 1929 faced a turbulent world.

Perhaps Ashridge is indirectly part of the answer as to why we don’t have a conservative university. We have business schools. I understand that parts of the media think that all universities are in the grip of a culture war, but most of the universities I know are full of business schools. Business and Management is the most popular subject category for undergraduates with 285,000 students. There are 120,000 students taking taught postgraduate courses in Business and Management. That’s not to say that business schools are conservative, but they are probably not full of people who are planning to bring in the kind of state control that so worried the Conservative Party in the 1920s. They’re full of people who want to learn about ‘business’, some in general, but many more in particular the various technical components that make up organisations: accountancy, marketing, HR etc.

None of the three colleges that the Conservative Party organised in the Twentieth Century survived as party institutions. Ashridge’s conversion into successful business school might show that the educational side hadn’t been necessary, despite the exaggerated threat. Berthezène concludes, however, by noting that, in the battle of ideas, it’s now the conservative think tanks that occupy a more important place than those like Fabians…

Berthezène, C, 2015, Training Minds for the war of Ideas, Ashridge College, the Conservative party and the cultural politics of Britain, 1929-54, Manchester University Press

To the Manor Admitted

Imagine; a government deciding that it needed to seriously boost numbers of students in higher education. Linked to a very clear need for staff in an employment area, one that the government was going to decisively extend under its own powers. Needing to move fast, it would be looking for a huge increase in providers and to meet a major proportion of the buildings necessary it would turn to a readily available source. It would put Stately Homes to use.

By common assent, teacher training policy has been a muddle. In 1938 the prospects for colleges were so poor that the Church of England set out to consolidate those it ran, closing three of them. Within five years much had changed. There was a clear consensus in government for a change in the amount of schooling the general population would receive and ahead of the 1944 Education Act the McNair Committee considered the prospects for teacher training. More would be needed and at a higher standard. Part of the Committee’s recommendations addressed the accommodation of the existing colleges:

Quite apart from any extension of premises to provide for a larger number of students, many colleges, if they are to be recognised in the future, will have to undertake substantial building operations in order to make good their deficiencies of accommodation and amenities. … It is intolerable, for instance, that large numbers of students should be sleeping in cubicles, and that many colleges lack even the minimum accommodation and equipment necessary for the proper education and training of their students. One of the things a student should learn at college is the art of private study; and he cannot do this without a room of his own. Nor can students have the kind of social life which is desirable unless there are adequate common rooms and other facilities to enable them to use their leisure in a sensible way. We need not emphasise, on the more professional side, how regrettable it is that the proper development of the various subjects of the curriculum should be hampered by lack of lecture rooms, laboratories, craft rooms and so on. Finally, the irritation caused to students and staff alike from inadequate dining, kitchen and other domestic arrangements is calculated to produce discontent and to damage the reputation of a college.

McNair Report (1944) Teachers and Youth Leaders p 75

More colleges would be needed, and fast. Given the state of the nation in 1944, there was no chance of building new sites. It was time for repurposing. The Government set to work on planning this. One site was going to be St Peter’s College, Peterborough, one of the colleges that the Church of England had closed in 1938, but this did not actually come off, despite the government organising staff for it. Other sites came from war uses. Alsager College would take on the living quarters for a munitions factory, the site retaining the layout through its life as a provider. Coventry College of Education was in Nissan huts, Middleton St. George College of Education in an RAF base. The last of the emergency colleges, Bletchley Park, stayed in the former MI5 and Enigma team buildings until moving to Wheatley in 1966.

But, there was another source of buildings surplus to requirements: Stately Homes. There was an established tradition that one use for redundant vast country piles was as schools. Examples include Rossall Hall (1844), Prior Park (1867), Stowe (1921), Tring Park (1939). When a university was mooted for North Staffordshire at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Duke of Sutherland offered Trentham Hall to the county council as a location. Peter Mandler has described how conversion to educational use was seen as one of the ‘friendliest possible uses’ (1997, p325)

The Second World War catalysed the slow decline of the country house, caused by a mixture of social changes, including, of course, the imposition of death duties. Houses were requisitioned for a range of uses, Mandler describing how the payment of death duties turned land sales to public benefit. (1997, p335)

See the source image
Kirkley Hall

Councils quickly pressed large houses into use. Among the emergency colleges, the following were all based around a house: Balls Park, Bretton Hall, De La Salle College (Hopwood Hall), Eaton Hall College of Education, Retford, Kesteven College of Education, Grantham (Stoke Rochford Hall), Lady Mabel College (Wentworth), Newton Park, Northumberland College of Education,(Kirkley Hall) St. Paul’s College, Rugby (Newbold Revel), Totley Hall, Trent Park, and Wall Hall.

See the source image
Bretton Hall

The case had been made for greater proportion of residential students in the 1930s. Expansion plans for training colleges would require additional accommodation in time, but the houses could quickly provide the kind of teaching and residential accommodation that the McNair committee recommended. McNair hadn’t gone as far as recommending only the residential mode, but had sought to bring the same benefits to students in the training colleges as were available in the universities. The report recommended a loosening of regulation of residential life in the colleges, to promote ‘self-reliance and self-discipline which are essential to adult life’.

With the exception of Reading, the modern universities had been founded in the large cities. The UGC now agreed to fund a new college on a residential model. The prospects for North Staffordshire were advanced by A D Lindsay, and the project settled on Keele Hall and its estate. Given the intended scale for the University College was considerably more than a training college, the Hall would be a base while the military huts on the site could give way to the proper buildings. In time, the same approach would see Heslington Hall and Wivenhoe House as the first buildings of universities built on their estates.

Other, public sector, HEIs came to own stately homes too. Councils used them as conference and training centres and at incorporation in 1988 many passed to the polytechnics and colleges in their own right. The Chelmer Institute (now Anglia Ruskin) had Danbury Palace, Luton College (now Bedfordshire) has Putteridge Bury, and Buckinghamshire College acquired Missenden Abbey. Later mergers, particularly with land-based colleges, brought large houses into universities – including the fabulous Brackenhurst campus of NTU.

As splendid as these stately home higher education institutions are, the emergency colleges are over-represented in the list of those that have closed. Many of those which stayed as teacher training providers closed in the 1970s, or were merged into polytechnics who have now moved from those sites. Probably the grandest of these sites is Wentworth Woodhouse – leased to Lady Mabel College, but, after merger, given up by Sheffield City Polytechnic in 1988 due to the high maintenance costs. Nearby, Wentworth Castle College of Education was succeeded in the building by Northern College, a residential further education college.

See the source image
Wentworth Woodhouse

Some institutions would have seen a boost from the HEFCE historic buildings premium, but the additional maintenance costs of a large historic building, even if balanced by conference and events income will have played a factor in many institutions leaving these houses. There are other continuing educational uses made of some; overseas universities have branches in them (such as Evansville at Harlaxton) or training centres (such as the Prison Service at Newbold Revel). What would be wonderful is to capture the extent to which these stately home colleges were distinctive – what it would been like to be a residential student in these places.

Mandler, P, 1997, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home, New Haven, Yale University Press
McNair Report, 1944, Report of the Committee appointed by the President of the Board of Education to consider the Supply, Recruitment and Training of Teachers and Youth Leaders, HMSO

Levelling up through levels

There remains a problem with the way we use language to describe different levels and what might be seen as different emphases on education, particularly once students are making big choices (which the English do ludicrously early).

Here’s the Secretary of State for Education picking up on an essay by the Social Market Foundation.

We’ve had several iterations of the ‘other 50%’ issue – but here’s a conflation of levels and type of education. The mistake is there in the SMF survey – a choice for people at 18 between ‘get a vocational qualification’ and ‘go to University’ (or get a job). The SMF don’t provide a copy of the questions for the survey, which was run in September 2019, but there’s a hint in a table how they might have posed this difference between a ‘university degree’ or a ‘vocational qualification (e.g. a technical or practical qualification specific to a trade, including apprenticeship)’. The ‘e.g.’ is important because it sets up an opposition to the ‘university degree’ as not being a technical or practical qualification. You could very easily go to a university to take a technical or practical qualification – this could be a masters or undergraduate degree, a HND or a foundation degree. It could be an apprenticeship. The question appears to reinforce the ‘academic’ is something you do a degree in, technical or practical is not.

There’s no necessary reason that even well understood subjects have to sit neatly on a vocational/academic spectrum. Is Medicine vocational/practical or academic? Would a person imagine they wouldn’t want their 18 year old child to do a medicine or nursing or quality surveying course at university? In 2020/21 we’ve been challenged by the government’s definition of ‘practical’ in terms of the requirements to have in-person teaching. Here that’s linked to the type of activity to be undertaken – you need a specialist space to use some equipment in some way, but practical under those terms can be archaeology or business management.

It’s possible to think that the respondents to the SMF survey were confused as to this dichotomy. It appears that the Secretary of State was confused about levels. You can do an apprenticeship at levels, 3, 4/5, 6 or 7, so that’s fine, especially when coupled with a degree (except when Government got cold feet about MBAs). But T levels aren’t intended as a choice for 18 year olds. In the government’s main scheme you’ve already got your T-level at 18, you’re now looking at a choice between more education or a job or both. That might be a level 4/5 qualification, which you might do at a university, or a further education college alone or with your employer – perhaps in an apprenticeship.

Of course, these tropes are well established – there seems no point rehearsing that even the 50% target was clarified as people getting some higher education before they are 30. That seems deeply unambitious now, with the lifetime skills guarantee cementing the right to gain a qualification at level 3 (although with a focus on skills based courses) with the lifelong loan entitlement to follow.

Just consider the government’s Higher Technical Qualifications scheme, kitemarking L4/5 courses developed in conjunction with employers. Does the Secretary of State see these as vocational qualifications or as going to university? The words are just wrongly used, increasingly unhelpful. Practical, Technical, Vocational, Academic, Further, and Higher, blend into each other. There’s even a confusion between the type of provider and the education on offer – some FECs do HE (Level 4-7), some HEIs offer FE (Level 3). This confusion could even result in the bizarre situation that in April 2021 siblings could be studying the same subject in the same building but at different levels, one being allowed in-person teaching at level 3 but the one at level 4 not. Historically the line between the providers is arbitrary, now the OfS registration regime facilitates FECs doing HE, but others may be doing so through franchises.

Obviously this is too complex for a politician’s tweet, but it’s not too complex for a think-tanks’ essay. Let’s stop drawing this lazy dichotomy between doing a ‘vocational qualification’ and ‘going to university’. You can do both. Let’s talk about the levels, let’s talk about the opportunities that completing education at L3 and then going beyond that bring.

Let’s also focus on those pie charts – 85% of people thought 18 year olds should get more education (‘vocational’ or ‘university’). Stuff the 50% target.

(Post updated 24/4/21 with that last reflection)

Higher Education: Collaboration in the Professional Services

A distinct ‘professional service’ for higher education is a relatively recent innovation. This is odd, given the long history of the sector, but perhaps understandable. This month I’ve presented at sector conferences on our history focusing both on professional services and how collaboration is built in to our way of working.

Our first universities hired the people they needed, gave them protections from aspects of civil jurisdiction but did not make them partners in the running of the university. This was reserved to the scholars. In the 17th century this had stabilised, as Crossley notes of Oxford:

Privileged persons were those who, while not scholars, were matriculated and enjoyed the university’s privileges… the city had long since accepted that certain tradesmen such as barbers, bookbinders, parchmenters, limners and college cooks might be matriculated…

Crossley A, 1997. ‘City & University’ in Tyache N, The History of the University of Oxford Vol IV 17th Century Oxford p129

As new universities developed, they added to these staff but not as a professional service. There are limited mentions of these early staff in institutional histories, but often framed by their absence:

In the 1870s and 1880s the provincial university had but little need for administrative staff. At Aberdeen during this period the administrative work was handled by a local firm of solicitors, and the Yorkshire College of Science shared its secretary with the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, until 1899. 

Mattison, F, 1974, ‘Government and Staff’ in Gosden P & Taylor A, Studies in the History of a University. Leeds, Arnold & Son, pp242-243

Slowly there was the addition of clerks to committees, supporting the academics (the early professors of the Yorkshire College held their meetings at their homes, taking the minutes in turn). Receipt of government funding required accountability (an error in a 1908/09 return at one University College effectively cost both the Registrar and the Principal their jobs). By 1939 the University of Leeds had grown to a sizeable administration including:

Vice Chancellor
Vice Chancellors’ Secretary
Registrar and Secretary
Clerk to the Senate
Senior Assistant Secretary & Chief Clerk
Assistant Secretaries (2)
Assistant Accountant
Assistant Clerk to the Senate
Chief Bookkeeper
Senior Clerks (2)
Clerks (14)

The expansion after the War lead to the growth of a profession of university administrator, and the network which has now grown to support us. James Walsh described the group of staff that Manchester gathered together:

…the academic office was singular in being staffed, administratively, by bright young graduates. This practice was not followed anywhere else to anything like the same extent and was in fact treated with some scorn by other universities… [the] administrative assistants were able, sociable, enjoyed discussions, could hold their own with academic colleagues, knew a lot about the place and wanted to find out more  – in short provided an efficient and unified cadre…

Walsh, J, 1986,’1961-1973 A Time of Hope’ in Bosworth S, Beyond the Limelight, Conference of University Administrators
Four of the earliest members of MUAAS Alex Currie (later Secretary, Edinburgh), Stuart Bosworth (Registrar, Salford), Emrys Wynn-Jones (Registrar, Aberystwyth) and James Walsh (Registrar, Leeds),

Walsh was the first University Registrar I met, having ruled his half of the University of Leeds’ administration for thirteen years. If Manchester set that mark early on, it was Warwick that later set the pace, providing a cadre of senior administrators across the sector. Universities worked together to develop training schemes and the CVCP set up a sub-committee to look at their development. in 1970, they found nearly 3000 staff worked in what we would call ‘professional services’.

AreaNumber (rounded)
Academic administration1,150
Buildings and estates500
Careers and appointments170

In the university sector there was a clear divide between one group, typically administrators or librarians, and other staff, including clerical staff. Angus noted: ‘men are usually appointed to administrative posts, and clerical staff are usually women’. The administrators had different terms & conditions, being treated like academic staff – earning the ‘academic-related’ tag, with different holidays, pensions and perks. It was the clerical staff who joined a trades union – the academic-related could join AUT.

All posts are as a rule tenable up to the age for retirement, on contract terminable by written notice by either side; power to dismiss is sometimes hedged by statutory procedures designed to protect the freedom of the academic staff in teaching. In practice an administrative officer in any grade must be quite inefficient, or intolerably temperamental, or flagrantly immoral, before [they] need expect to be dismissed.

Angus W, 1973, University Administrative Staff in Public Administration Vol 51:1 p17-39

Angus summarised the advantages of rising to the top of the administration; the Registrar’s job:

A registrar, ranking with a professor, commands a cash salary higher than that of an MP or a bishop. There is no profit motive, and as a rule no party politics. One deals with educated people. Social advantages include senior common rooms, libraries, and sometimes much more.

Angus W, 1973, University Administrative Staff in Public Administration Vol 51:1 p17-39

If universities were used to being left alone to run their own affairs, mostly lead by academic staff, then the 1980s were a rude awaking. The crises of the 1970s lead to the removal of the old planned quinquennial funding system with its certainties and the early 1980s saw unprecedented cuts. The University Grants Committee (UGC) worked with the sector to plan these, but CVCP turned to Sir Alex Jarrett to run an efficiency study. The report bristles with modern management techniques, and the old system of committees came under particular pressure. Any hope this could be fended off was dealt a crushing blow by the failings at University College Cardiff. Brought to be brink by bad management, the Government was forced to act, with the UGC requiring the college to sack or retire its principal. The ‘Cardiff Affair’ is not the cause of the ending of collegial systems, but I think it bookends a stage where government funding was provided with a minimum of regulation. After this comes the incorporation of the polytechnics, the UFC/PCFC stage and then the ending of the binary line. Competition for resources becomes official policy and accountability systems expand. Quality assurance becomes the watch-word.

The AUA was one of the first sector bodies to get its post-binary world together, and celebrated a union in April 1993. Its inaugural conference reflected the growth of the professional services and their continued commitment to collaboration. There were concerns, of course, David Jenkins giving voice to them at the first conference dinner. As I’ve prepared for these 2021 conferences, where I will be sitting in the same space I’ve sat for the last year, I’ve gathered some of the artefacts of previous conferences. I have mugs, t-shirts, pads, pens and many bags. They signify professional services working together across very different types of institutions. The other artefact I dug out came from the Jiscmail archives: an academic registrar trying to decode the actions of the funding agency – one of hundreds of such conversations that happen every day.

It’s 60 years since the Manchester cadre thought it would be a good idea to have a meeting of university administrators. That’s grown into the AUA which has been at the forefront of supporting the twin tracks of professionalism and collaboration. The OfS is required by law to have ‘regard to the benefits for students and employers resulting from collaboration between such providers’ – bodies such as SROC and AUA have been there in the long term to maximise those benefits.

Insomniacs can find a recording of the SROC presentation here.

The wonders of ‘niche activism’ thirty years on.

One of the fronts that the Government seems keen to open up in the Culture Wars is on Students’ Unions. Students’ Unions are magnificent. However, it’s clear that the Conservative Party has something of an issue with them. This is not a sudden thing, but it’s had some new and very clear manifestations. In the government’s Higher Education Restructuring Regime there were many strictures that a provider would need to follow it it were to access the funds, including a requirement for efficiencies where the Secretary of State drew a distinction in Students’ Union activities:

The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.

The ‘Common Sense Group’ of Conservative MPs decided that Students’ Unions were worthy of writing to the PM about.

And now, finally, with precious little evidence of these problems, DfE is proposing a convoluted sharing of regulation between the Charity Commission and OfS because of what Gavin Williamson says are ‘inappropriate levels of control over which speakers can visit and how student societies can operate’ in Students’ Unions. Although the bulk of the policy paper relates to universities, the Times ran a piece highlighting the Students’ Union angle.

I’m sure that this antipathy is illogical, but it also runs deep. Having cause to remember Students’ Unions in the 1990s, that seems a good place to look.

Leeds University Union Christmas 1991

Students’ Unions developed in the big civic universities to provide something that was clearly lacking in the ‘non-residential’ university. One chronicler of the failings of new universities recounted that the Union was more of a ‘cloak-room than a club’ (Herklots, 1928, p13). In time these unions grew into grand clubs, with theatres, bars and coffee lounges but also keeping a spirit through representation and involvement of students. That spirit flourished from the late 1960s and individual unions, and the NUS, developed a strong political streak. But the union was most often full for events, far less so for political meetings.

An Ordinary General Meeting at LUU

What it was full of, was activism. Students joined groups that were for and against things. Some of the things they were against were government policies and ideologies. A student at Leeds could assemble a portfolio of society memberships which featured a major element of opposition to the government, say: Animal Rights, Anti Poll Tax, CND & Peace Club and the Hunt Sabs. Continuing its long tradition of internationalism, societies such as Anti-Apartheid, Palestine Solidarity, Soviet Jewry or Third World First were critical of government policies. The Union buzzed. It buzzed with difference; from the Black Lodge (goths) to Folk Music, from Light Opera Society to Theatre Group, from the Socialist Workers Society to the Revolutionary Communist Students. Some differences were inclusive, you could be in both, some were mutually exclusive (in the above picture the RCS are probably arguing with the SWS, they usually were). Some times the differences mattered – the first Union Council meeting I attended had to confirm the decision that a leaflet was Anti-Semitic and could not be distributed in the building. Some activism was angry; the government was not popular with a proportion of younger people with the Poll Tax, Section 28 and Student Loans all in play (one of the biggest, loudest nights in LUU was when Mrs Thatcher resigned). But much of the activism was celebratory, especially the wonderful national cultural societies. But all of the activism was about being active in things, those above, but also archaeology, conservation, games, journalism, railways, religion, surfing, travel or sports.

Although indirectly covering Students’ Unions in the freedom of speech provisions of the 1986 Education Act, the difficulties that the conservative government had with SUs continued. Kenneth Baker proposed legislation in 1989, but, as Mrs Thatcher’s underlining and notes show, this would have to wait.

John Macgregor was also convinced that legislation was needed. This note from March 1990 shows the advice to Mrs Thatcher that the time was still not right. The idea was to break the power of the SUs through voluntary membership, but this was complex and it was noted that students will create a great fuss in the press. Mrs Thatcher never got to legislate on SUs.

If Ken Clarke tried to legislate on SUs, it didn’t make it to the Prime Minister’s desk, so it was John Patten who tried again. In March 1993 he brought this forward again. The adviser, Nick True, confirmed this would be highly popular with the back benchers but there were warning signs about the timing. Nothing happened that year.

Patten was back in 1994 though. The opt-out was more developed, but that just meant that the problems were better understood. The lack of effectiveness was particularly noted; True wrote that as ‘most students join the unions to drink the beer, it is questionable how many will in fact opt-out if there is no financial incentive and the danger of enforced teetotalism’. The legislation would have included drawing freedom of speech to the attention of students, but no further action was taken on that.

When the 1994 Education Act was passed, it contained provisions for the governance of Students’ Unions, including that students should have the right not to be members of the Union and including rules to allow for disaffiliation from external bodies (they meant NUS). Nick True was right though, this did not have a major impact. It had taken five years to bring in legislation, which still sets the framework for SUs, but it can hardly have met the wishes of the wider party. Interestingly, Patten tried to include tuition fees in the bill, but it was noted that this would not command a majority.

I don’t think the labelling, ‘political correctness’ then, ‘woke’ now, helps matters very much. I just think back to that magnificent union, with its mixture of celebration of difference, and defiance against a world that struggled to keep up with difference, and wonder, thirty years on, who was right? Was it wrong to be intolerant of racism or sexism, to be supportive of equality and fairness and active in seeking to make the place better – starting with the union but then radiating out into the world? People are sometimes dismissive of ‘student union politics’ but I think they remain marvellous. I much rather have the energy, buzz and (to slip into my current role for a second) challenge that comes from Students’ Unions. Here’s hoping that Gavin Williamson’s legislation is as ineffective as John Patten’s in knocking the life out of Students’ Unions.

[As ever, this blog is not supposed to represent the views of the very different universities I have studied or worked at]

Herklots H, 1928, The New Universities: an external examination, London, Ernest Benn
National Archives, Records of the Prime Minister’s Office: Correspondence and Papers, 1979-1997, PREM 19/4549

A gap in the regulation of HE ‘Providers’ – those that aren’t really HE providers

The OfS Register of providers is the definitive listing in England of places authorised to offer higher education. There is another register, which the UKVI has, of those places entitled to sponsor students. This isn’t just higher education providers, but it does include a series of overseas providers allowed to educate students here. But there’s regulated higher education on offer elsewhere too; it could be franchised from a OfS register provider. There may also be provision that looks like it’s regulated, but might not be. There the widest list of provision hopefully captures all of this: the UK Register of Learning Providers (UKRLP). Most in the HE sector will only know this as the source of an unique number, the UKPRN, but it forms the backbone of the systems of regulating providers.

The UKRLP confirms that it does not quality assure or accredit the learning provision of the registered providers in any way’ in large friendly letters on the website. This is true. None of the measures that a customer of a learning provider might expect in way of quality assurance, accreditation or regulation rely on the UKRLP in any way. There are over 50,000 providers on the UKRLP and, as we shall see, they vary quite a lot. The concern here is with places that give the impression that they are higher education providers, and whether the new mechanisms (neatly captured in a new DfE document can stop them).

The DfE has published some guidance on the Use of university, polytechnic and higher education in business and company names. There are ‘sensitive words’ than cannot be used in company names which are regulated, but they also note that the use of the same words in straplines or prominently in marketing material could be a consumer protection offence. The guidance makes clear that some of the things I’ve spotted over the last few years shouldn’t be happening. Amity University in London ought not to have been given permission to call itself that, excitingly there is a new rule that could override the permission given to the nice footballers to call their provider University Academy 92. We look forward to seeing what OfS proposes to do with retrospective cases on their register.

The UKRLP gives a window, however, into a world where providers give the clear impression that they are offering higher education, even thought they are not triggering the official rules. If you don’t offer access to tuition fee or maintenance loans (even if you say the fee is £9000) or offer to sponsor international students or use ‘university’ in your company name, you can still give the clear impression you are offering further or higher education and take people’s money.

I found the British College of Canine Studies advertising at me online. Hoping that it was qualifications for dogs I followed the link. It offers certificates, some of which are offered at ‘Level 3’ or ‘Level 4’ although it is quite clear that these are not Ofqual approved. It is ‘accredited’ by another body of dog training which says that there’s not government authority over dog training courses. If you complete the 360 hour ‘Level 4’ course you can add the letters BCCSDip.AdvCanBhv after your name.

I have no knowledge about dog training courses, I assume this is excellent. The provider has a UKPRN, but that’s no guarantee of quality or standards.

The UKRLP is web-based and easily searchable, so you can go looking for keywords. I’ve always had a bit of a concern about providers who use a place name, but aren’t actually there (given that there’s a rationale for places named after someone with a town as their name of title – say Merton or Pembroke colleges in Oxford or whose college migrated – say Mansfield or Regents Park). In the bad old days of the UKVI register you could be sponsored by Cambridge Western Academy, which was so far west of Cambridge to actually be in Birmingham. The UKRLP has a selection of providers named after Oxford distributed across the UK. Again, buyer beware, the Oxford College of Education is in High Wycombe, the Oxford Business School is in Edgware, The Oxford Business and Science Academy is in East Ham but thankfully the Oxford College of London is actually in London (also East Ham). Sadly, there’s no appellation contrôlée for higher education providers.

Obviously there’s no prospect of doing field work to visit these sites, but the historical wonders of Street View can transport you to Katherine Road, East Ham (the provider now seems to be calling itself the Oxford Training College).

Push beyond the curious name, and it is perfectly possible to imagine that someone might look at these providers and decide that they actually are higher education providers. There are HNDs and degrees advertised (with no obvious link to the awarding body that might grant these).

It’s likely that any due diligence on the part of an applicant would soon flush out that these aren’t real awards, or certainly not ones that you could get a loan to take. We do have access to services to try an pick up on this. HEDD runs a verification service, which will give you a clear indication of the completely fake places they’ve dealt with and you can report new fake places.

But, what if a provider isn’t advertising an HND or a degree or calling itself a university, what if it’s just saying that its courses are Level 4 or Level 7? Should there be any regulation of this?

The UKRLP would be a good place for DfE to start looking for providers who are stretching the rules. There’s a company that, in addition to its ‘The Oxford College’ provider has an online provider called ‘Madinah Islamic University’, which shouldn’t be confused with The Islamic University of Madinah (although it says that it offers an ‘abridged version’ of its curriculum). If the test is that providers should not using the title ‘university’ without permission of they are offering educational services, then being on the UKRLP would seem like an easy test. That should cause someone to contact the following as a starter:

  • Geek University (UKPRN: 10053958)
  • Educatingly Ltd (who have Madinah Islamic University) (10085983),
  • Education in the Community Ltd (University of Business) (10080835),
  • EU TLA Ltd (Excel University) (10086904),
  • Inner Circle Marylebone Ltd (American Intercontinental University – who used to be QAA reviewed but now…) (10000274),
  • Lukomonah John Uni Ltd (Lukomonah John University), (10087168),
  • Mayur: The Ayurvedic University of Europe (10021039),
  • MCCT Ltd (MCCT University) (10054241)

I really welcome DfE’s new guidance, which will hopefully tidy up provision which might otherwise confuse students. It’s potentially generous in allowing providers associated with universities to use the word, but at least there are clear criteria. Ensuring the names are right is an important part of maintaining what David Watson called the ‘controlled reputational range’ of UK higher education – vital for our global reputation.

What is the OfS Register supposed to tell us?

At the heart of the OfS system of regulation is the Register. There are stringent requirements to be admitted to it and ongoing conditions for remaining on it. OfS are setting out to ask some questions about the register as it’s published, which, although they may seem arcane, are actually fundamental. OfS have published a consultation on the information they publish on providers which will hopefully clear up a number of issues.

The first set of questions are what goes in the register. Although being on it is an achievement there are gradations. Currently you can tell whether a provider is Approved or Approved (fee cap), the later meaning they can charge £9250 and receive OfS funding in return for increased accountability. It also lists whether you have degree awarding powers or the right to use ‘university’ in your title. Tricky thing, though, places that use ‘university’ don’t have a ‘yes’ in that cell.

Then there are the questions of what does not go on the register. Although OfS publish conditions via the register these are pretty opaque. You need to follow the link from the register – you’d never find the document otherwise. The condition which, after all, is a judgment by the OfS, is hard to find and hard to understand. They also come and go. Oxford Brookes had a condition, but it’s been removed without mention in the register or in the bulletin of regulatory activity. Some conditions were to produce an action plan two years ago, but they remain on the register. It’s not currently clear that a condition has to be published or evidence of that recorded.

Then there’s the question who’s not on the register. We’ve been round this several times. OfS are asking about the information published about providers who have been refused – should they provide full information. They cite the case of OfS vs Barking & Dagenham College about the publication of a refusal decision – which is more interesting because OfS have removed most mentions of the refusal to register Barking & Dagenham College from their website. The Home Office have argued that information about refusal to include a provider on the Student Route register is commercially confidential because it might ‘promote a lack of public confidence in the institution’. OfS have a list of refusals but they are also clear that they might not publish a decision. They also won’t publish details of whether a provider sought registration but then withdrew.

One of the refusal decisions published by OfS was GSM. The date given for this was 20 April 2020 but it had emerged in July 2019 that OfS had said they were minded to refuse registration, which was cited as a reason that the provider went into administration. Here is a problem that OfS are trying to avoid, the lack of registration could be inferred as a problem. OfS include a warning about drawing conclusions, but here’s a problem – the process has been going so long it’s hard not to infer that a provider of higher education that hasn’t got on the OfS register has a problem – even if it’s not trying to be on the register. It’s plausible that a provider could be quite happy with a franchise arrangement; there are several providers who previously received public funding having had designated courses who are not yet on the register.

There is a clear kite mark effect of being on the OfS register. Not only has the provider met the onerous conditions, there are continuing protections for students that they’d be well-advised to seek out – protections that may not be so strong in a provider operating via franchise. Checking back to inspect the OfS spreadsheet before applying (especially for 2019-20) does not seem adequate – so it’s really welcome to have some clarity. I’ve noted before that it can take some detective work to find out how a provider not on the register is offering HE courses. OfS is not offering to publish a list of all the providers that its registered providers have collaborative links with, but I do think there’s a risk to students (who OfS note are ‘not generally sophisticated consumers’).

Then there’s the question as to how the register is presented. OfS have said from the outset that the spreadsheet is an interim measure. Although I’m fond of it, and it’s useful for the three or four people in the country who have a general interest in it, it’s a terrible way of presenting England’s register of higher education providers. I’m really hoping that something elegant will emerge to replace it.

The OfS Register spreadsheet 15 December 2020

This consultation is a huge opportunity to pull together the regulatory information in a way that’s useful to both those interested in HE regulation but more importantly for those sophisticated consumers who want to know they’ve got a reputable provider that the OfS is regulating.

The Hunt for the Sub-degree

For different reasons, policy makers inthe UK have been searching for an alternative to the Honours Degree. The full-time three year gold standard post-compulsory schooling qualification has twisted attempts to think about higher education, and it looks like doing so again. In education, it’s either a degree or something trying to be different to a degree. So far, nothing has quite managed to usurp the degree as the qualification of choice. In terms of level, a qualification that goes beyond that expected of 18 year olds (level 3) but stays at level 4/5, is a holy grail – which is odd because the problem is that it’s the thing that people aren’t seeking enough. At it’s worst, it’s the solution that people propose for other people’s children.

As sometimes happens with HE policy, we’ve been here before. Several times.

Thatchers’ Child: The DipHE

One of the unfinished pieces of business from the Robbins Report was teacher education. The James Report took this forward and proposed a three cycle system for teachers, where it would not be necessary for them to have a whole undergraduate education before training, two years would suffice. So a qualification, the DipHE, was created to be those two years. This would allow teacher training colleges to diversify without needing a research-led third year.

This was included in Margaret Thatcher’s white paper in her term as Education Secretary and taken forward in the 1970s. The DipHE was supposed to be broad in scope – designed to tackle the specialisation problem. There were many innovative curriculum projects, including the NELP Independent Study programme.

The biggest boost to the DipHE was when it was adopted as the qualification aim for nursing, midwifery and health visiting courses. Any longitudinal data about sub-degree numbers needs to account for this – these subject areas now continue to Level 6 and degrees. There was a brief resurgence in DipHE registrations when HEFCE allocated student numbers for sub-degree work, but other schemes were in train…

The suggestion Dearing killed: The Associate Degree

There’s much to admire about the associate degree in the US system. A qualification in its own right, it facilitates the transfer system that backs up mobility schemes in planned systems with flagship universities. Start at your local community college and finish at one of the best universities in the country. The milestone report into credit accumulation, Choosing to Change, from HEQC proposed an associate degree for the UK.

The Dearing Report said:

Our enquiries found minimal support for the introduction of such a qualification. It is seen as devaluing the term ‘degree’ and thought likely to become a second class qualification which would not be credible with employers or overseas, especially in mainland Europe. There was, moreover, suspicion that it was a cost-driven proposal paving the way to a ‘two-year entitlement’, so that students would be persuaded that it was a normal endpoint for a majority of undergraduates.

Dearing Report (Higher Education in the learning society), 1997, London, HMSO p147

Blunket’s Fancy: The Foundation Degree

The foundation degree was the most comprehensive attempt to create a Level 4/5 qualification. There was a clear prospectus for it; with terms for engagement with it, incentives for institutions to engage, and a promotional campaign. HEFCE set out clear terms for engagement; requiring working with employers and further education. Some markets flourished, others were a struggle. There were complications about progression, but it was a building success.

But, a new qualification isn’t quick. As Ben Verinder has noted, foundation degrees are in decline. I had a cursory attempt to find any ministerial speech from June 2010 to June 2020 that mentioned them, let alone any action that promoted them. If anything, its is a surprise that foundation degrees have continued, albeit with reduced numbers.

Willett’s Folly: The return to HND

An accidental boom in sub-degree provision came from opening course designation and encouraging alternative providers with quality assurance playing catch-up. Although the NAO considered the boom in several reports which focused on ineligible payments, it’s clear that a few providers recruited students who they had limited evidence they would benefit from the higher education they were enrolled on. Again, any longitudinal analysis of the data on sub-degree registrations needs to account for this. Several reports have taken snapshot dates to compare data with, care must be taken about the boom days of registration on HND programmes in these providers.

Hinds’ Hope: The Higher Technical Qualification

The new hope is the Higher Technical Qualification. Although the HTQ is apparently the ‘brand; in itself, it’s not clear what qualification this actually will be. There’s many concerns that the centralising focus will be complex, with accreditation of the qualifications within strict boundaries. There’s a complexity that the the means that government had to guide providers to take up foundation degrees may not be there for HTQs. Growing HTQs alongside other existing qualifications will be complex.

Generic Technical Issues

The core problem with sub-degree qualifications is the interplay between level, that the course is at levels 4 and 5 – higher education but not a degree, and focus of the subject. Here there’s a problem with the work ‘technical’ – referring both to the subject – technology and the methodology – working technically. A qualification in technical subjects could be a branch of STEM, or it could be a branch of vocational education. It probably doesn’t help to confuse the two. Probably the word ‘technical’ is the problem itself. Level 4/5 education is higher education, even if it’s delivered in a further education college. So, I’d only keep the word ‘Higher’ from HTQs. Wherever they go, this is higher education in a variety of subjects with a variety vocational aims. Dearing was probably right to avoid devaluing, but any ‘Sub-degree’ alternative needs to drive a clear path but with the grain of the secto, which includes not abandoning the foundation degree .

When Registers Collide

One of the new parts of the English HE regulatory structure is a very welcome conjunction between OfS regulation and the separate scheme whereby the Home Office decides which providers can sponsor students. The OfS and the Home Office both run registers, but one of the welcome simplifications of regulation was that the Home Office would accept OfS registration as a condition of sponsorship.

The Home Office had been caught off guard by the introduction of a points-based immigration system as it allowed sponsoring of students at all sorts of providers. It quickly discovered that some of these weren’t good at sponsoring students and some were problematic – even bogus. It’s unclear to this day how many were bogus, but the numbers quoted by ministers were clearly wrong (the unfolding story is told elsewhere on this site in nine different posts).

So, rather than have a group of government approved providers regulated by the OfS and another group of government approved providers regulated by the Home Office, it was agreed that OfS registration would be a requirement of sponsorship of students. However, it’s quite clear that DfE underestimated the time it would take the new regulator to approve providers. We’ve seen the Inns of Court College of Advocacy complete registration in a mere 14 months – and that’s a new provider with one course validated by King’s College.

Having agreed a staggered start to the dual registration, providers who needed to gain OfS registration for Tier 4 registration for August 2019 were told to apply by 15 May 2019. Providers already on the Tier 4 register would already have had QAA Educational Oversight and an existing track record. It seems astonishing now that OfS and UKVI thought that registration could be completed in two and a half months, and clearly that did not happen.

It quickly emerged that this would not work, and so UKVI included a transitional stage. In the new student route document on approving new sponsors issued on 5 October 2020 this transitional stage is retained. Rather than two and a half months, UKVI is still waiting for OfS to complete registration processes 16 months later.

The register of student sponsors (now shorn of its old Tier 4 label) is dynamic, containing 1148 sponsors on 5 October, but generally slowly shrinking. For example, there were 1193 sponsors in August 2019. Obviously there was a point when the Home Office were actively trying to reduce that number, but it’s to be expected that, after six months of it being really complicated to have international students, that number will have shrunk a little.

The Register of Student Sponsors has different categories of sponsors, but these do not easily map onto the providers that ought to be requiring OfS registration in order to maintain their status. It’s not easy to cross-reference the two registers to identify who is on the UKVI one but who needs to be on the OfS one, but isn’t yet. So I asked the Home Office who they were.


In December 2019 the Home Office confirmed that 32 providers who were on the sponsor register were in a transitional arrangement. 4 providers had been removed from the register. They refused to provide the names of those providers. The first refusal was, I was told, because the name of the provider was personal data. This really didn’t seem to be valid so I asked for a review. After a mere five months they agreed they shouldn’t withhold the data because it was personal, but should withhold it because it was confidential. It contains the authoritative view that government should not disclose who is leaving the register because it might promote a lack of public confidence in the provider.

In relation to part 3 of your request, we are unable to release the names of providers who have been suspended or removed as section 43(2) of the FOIA applies. This is because disclosure of the Higher Education providers who have left the Tier 4 register may promote a lack of public confidence in the institution in providing such services to applicants and in turn lose out on trade or earnings by applicants seeking sponsorship through alternative organisations.

Home Office 27 May 2020

This appears to be an interesting regulatory principle – and very much at odds with the very public removal and suspending of institutions from the sponsor register in 2014 over English language tests (a contentious issue that remains a highly problematic call).

Fate of the Thirty Two

When the Home Office confirmed that 32 providers were in transitional arrangements, there were 391 providers on the OfS Register, there are 406 today, only 15 providers have been added in 10 months. Six of these registrations are on the UKVI register, including the embedded college groups run by Kaplan, INTO and Navitas – clearly these are heavily reliant on their student sponsor status (even more so after the ending of transition leaving the EU).

At least one provider that was on the August 2019 sponsor register was refused registration by OfS. Kensington College of Business failed to meet the B3 condition and is now downgraded to a UKVI ‘legacy sponsor’, meaning it can’t recruit new international students. Not every refusal decision by OfS has been published but this would suggest that up to 25 providers that applied by 15 May 2019 are still waiting for an OfS decision.

Registration is a vital part of the OfS regulatory landscape. OfS note that a number of registration processes have been held up by the pandemic. While it seems unlikely that two and a half months is a realistic timeframe for registration, there remains frustration at the time it takes. For existing providers there’s been various transitional processes but completely new providers are struggling to get underway (at least without going through a partnership with an existing provider). And, with the process taking so long, is there a potential problem of an oversight gap for the 25 providers waiting for registration?