New Providers: Planning or markets?

We need more higher education provision. Away from the people still banging on about Tony Blair’s 50% target, we need to start having an urgent strategic discussion as to how the English government is going to handle places in higher education over the next five years. We’re going to need many more places.

Just as the 50% target didn’t actually mean people doing three year residential undergraduate degrees in a town different to the one they currently live in, this is still the gold standard of expectations, and very likely to be the one which doesn’t result in a ‘low value’ outcome.

If the government is committed to closing the participation gap at a time when there will be a growth in the number of 18 year olds, then it will face an inevitable call to expand the number of places available for people to study. The question will be what kind of places in what kind of providers? How will the government support the expansion? What can history tell us about the successful way of doing this?

Making New Institutions

This is the the favoured model, particularly of local politicians, but is rare in the history of English HE. The UGC ran an exercise to create new universities, providing them with the capital funds and promises of funded student places at a time of surplus demand. There are two key difficulties with the prospect of running this again. It worked because there was a competition in which the local backers drew up the plan, showing how committed they were and how competent. It also worked because it was a nationally funded scheme run by a planning body and not by the ministry.

Founding new institutions is tricky. Despite a lot of government support since 2012, new institutions haven’t exactly fired into life. The standard-bearers for new places aren’t making much headway. The New College of the Humanities is a pretty different beast to the one so thoroughly promoted – sold to an American university, it’s now looking to get into degree apprenticeships. The Hereford scheme, with millions of government money, is still not properly advertising for its degree course which remains subject to validation.

Promoting Existing Institutions

This is the traditional model: find an existing provider and grow it into a larger HE institution.

This the model being used to grow new Institutes of Technology. There are 12, and apparently 8 more are coming. They are a fascinating hybrid, a mixture of local initiative and central planning. What they are most emphatically not, is the market in operation. There’s strong similarities with the exercises run to create the CATs and the Polytechnics – central government choosing from bids with half an eye on geographic distribution. Although they were supposed to be launched in the autumn, not much happened (except the host of one of them, Barking and Dagenham College, was refused admission to the OfS register).

There are FE colleges with a large amount of HE provision, perhaps a model is to promote them as proper hybrid institutions.

Spinning off new institutions

Probably the most successful current model is the spin-off. Here an existing provider supports provision in another part of the country. We have plenty of these University Centres, offering locally-based HE. These probably split into three categories: branch campuses; single FE & HE provider partnerships and FE Colleges with multiple HE provider links.

Branches have different types, of course. Coventry has developed its business model so that its group can support branches in Scarborough and Dagenham. In effect UA92 is a branch campus of Lancaster. The London branch campuses have had different measures of success, Liverpool being the latest to withdraw from their’s.

Local authorities are playing a key part in this form of provision; Trafford’s ambition to have a re-development partner lies at the heart of the UA92 foundation. Sometimes this is never gets going; Basingstoke & Deane’s unfulfilled vision for an HE provider is exceeded by the serial failure of Swindon to get a university. But sometimes the authority’s vision is for something grander. Both Milton Keynes and Peterborough have university centres, but they want more – they want universities more on the model of the UGC-created new universities.

Peterborough’s existing partners are both OfS registered and its university centre has achieved that too, but it wants to re-tender for a HE provider. In a recent presentation it’s clear that it will go ahead with the capital project and with its desired curriculum model before appointing a provider. It’s not clear how this ‘decoupling’ the HE provider will sit with OfS’s registration process.

The OfS registration process is necessarily rigorous but is turning out to be longer than predicted. If the Government needs more provision quickly, especially in towns that might not have had HE before, it needs to find a reliable way of promoting that. It might also need to accept that it needs to have someone undertake some planning: it might not be sensible to allow local authorities to hope that they will develop completely new research intensive universities with STEM faculties.

The question is who will do this? OfS is a regulator, not a funder and certainly not a planner. Government hasn’t got a great track-record here – attempts to plonk universities in politically advantageous areas are unlikely to work. Even ministers are prone to grandiose gestures (such as an MIT for the North). We need a way to expand HE that meets all those OfS conditions from the outset, so surely the best way is to get existing HE providers? They should probably look the universities but also the larger other providers, to lead the way. But it needs planning, the market hasn’t really helped here.