New Providers, Another New Analogy

Jo Johnson’s quest to explain the need for higher education has included some exciting analogies.  Today we move from burgers to bouncers.  Trouble is, that analogy is just as unhelpful as the burger one was.

We have the announcement of the Dyson Institute of Technology.  This is welcome; the involvement of industry in higher education is an entirely sensible thing.   Excitingly it might be the first time in the UK an industrialist has set up a higher education provider under their own name since Thomas Holloway had his vision for a women’s college.

Jo Johnson tells Times readers:

At a time when students are crying out for new ways of studying, the market share of the traditional three-year degree programme has increased from 65 per cent to 78 per cent over the past five years. Our reforms will change that. We will strip existing universities of the power to act like bouncers, deciding who should and should not be let into the club.

We shouldn’t let the first part of the quote pass us by.  There’s a reason why the market share of ‘traditional three-year degree programmes’ has increased – much of that is because of the catastrophic effect of this government’s reforms.   Removing teaching funding and a ham-fisted support package for part-time students wrecked the diversity of the sector, crashing their numbers.

But, let’s focus on the new analogy: bouncers.

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The minister wants to conjure the image of bouncers refusing entry to a club on an arbitrary basis.   No trainers allowed in here, mate.  (Here’s a handy piece of student journalism on trainers in clubs)   Now, just as there’s nothing wrong with a franchise holder enforcing standards in the use of their brand (the whole Bryon vs McDonalds fallacy), what’s wrong with a club having rules?  After all, entry to the HE club confers the right to award degrees, something that most people can’t go back and do another time if they don’t like the first one  (with burgers, you can keep trying them till you find one you like).

But ‘door supervision’ is a regulated industry, it has a British Standard (BS 7960) just recently updated.  As you’d expect, most of it is focused not on how dress codes, but on the kind of organisation that can be accredited to offer door supervision.  It specifies that it has to be properly run, do comprehensive risk assessments, offer vetting and training of its staff etc. A key role of door supervision is to keep out people who might do harm to those inside; people selling drugs or carrying weapons.

Why would the minister want to remove door supervision from higher education?   Are universities using their power to keep out the kinds of company that ought to be offering innovative higher education?  Who are these companies?  One company that’s not been prevented from offering higher education is Dyson – the whole point of this announcement is that Dyson is having a degree validated by Warwick University.

It’s good that ministers are striving to explain their policies, but they should lay off the analogies.  Taking away regulation of who can offer degrees is potentially a very bad idea. We benefit from a controlled reputational range in the UK; the measures planned for the English part of this may harm it.

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