Is the change of Government terminology towards different types of higher education institution just semantics, or is there a change in policy there too?
The coalition government was keen on ‘alternative providers’, but clearly had not thought through the implications of opening up the designation of courses which would allow students to obtain £6,000 fee loans plus maintenance loans and grants. We still do not fully know the full extent to which UK and EU students went to fast growing providers who offered quickly approved HND/C courses. Helpfully BIS published some research on the same day as it introduced the Higher Education and Research Bill. Many of the findings are averaged across the whole alternative provider sector, which the authors counted as including 732 providers of a very diverse range. The large, high profile, for-profit providers form only a very small number of those providers, although they account for a larger proportion of the student numbers.
We certainly saw ‘flux’ in the number of students at providers. Two, LSBF and St Patricks, grew very quickly and are now considerably smaller than at their apogee. Their parent company Global University Systems has decided to withdraw LSBF from designated courses altogether. St Patricks has published a copy of its Academic Management Review by BTEC that notes its student numbers are now around 2000, having been ‘about 4000’.
BIS came under considerable pressure to retrospectively create a regulatory framework, and one of the key tests for the White Paper is how the new Office for Students will be able to monitor providers. One aspect is their approval, and the government’s desire to see them get degree awarding powers and university title much more quickly – an area I have already noted some concerns about.
What is clear is that BIS has changed the language it is using and the examples it is giving. In place of ‘alternative providers’ we have ‘challenger institutions’. The same reliance on the notion of disruptive innovation is present, but the examples are not for-profit colleges in London (funded by venture capital), but not-for-profit colleges in the shires (recipients of public funding). The press release announcing the ‘new universities’ gave two examples:
It could benefit institutions such as Hereford’s proposed New Model in Technology and Engineering and could have benefited University Campus Suffolk, which has now been given the green light from the government to apply for University Title, 9 years after admitting its first higher education student.
Both these examples owe much more to the previous government’s university centre initiative than they do to the ‘alternative provider’ model. Suffolk, which it was announced the very next day had been awarded University title, is a long-term collaborative development very much in the mode of new university development in the twentieth century. Hereford is also a regeneration model, albeit with an attempt to form a distinctive curriculum, but whose advisory council heaves with heavyweight higher education figures.
In the debate on the Queen’s Speech on 25 May, Jo Johnson singled out these examples again, prompted by the Conservative MPs for these areas, and fixing the new university programme to ‘cold spots’.
I happily join my hon. Friend in congratulating the new University of Suffolk. It is terrific that one of four counties in this country that did not have a full university now has one. There are three other counties and we hope to encourage new institutions of similar quality to the University of Suffolk to come to the higher education cold spots that we have inherited.
However hard you try, you would be very hard pressed to identify the places where alternative providers have clustered in London as ‘cold spots’.
Before 2010 BIS had a programme of planning for new university centres, complete with a bidding process. Mostly these are delivered by a further education college with a link to a university, but sometimes these are outposts of a university. They continue to fill ‘cold spots’, and can be found in Croydon, Grimsby, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Shrewsbury, etc. Have these really replaced the ‘alternative providers’ as the object of affection for BIS? Are these the ‘challenger institutions’ that will drive up quality? Or will it be Google or Facebook -the giant corporations that the Government first briefed the media were their models – but whose participation cannot be confirmed.
I think it most than just semantics that has seen us move from ‘alternative providers’ to ‘challenger institutions’, and hopefully towards a more cautious approach towards the quality of these institutions.