Willetts must learn from America’s mistakes over for-profit universities

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt discusses the worrying record of for-profit universities and the even more worrying prospect of David Willetts' helping them expand in the UK.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

The role of for-profit education providers is likely to be a key feature in the government’s forthcoming white paper on higher education. The universities minister, David Willletts, has already made his position clear by arguing that competition from private universities will create a “more open, dynamic and diverse higher education system”.

It is an argument based on ideology rather than the facts. Private institutions are not subject to the same regulations as other universities: quality, student numbers and widening access, are left unregulated and UCU has warned continually that the for-profit model is fraught with danger.

A new report released yesterday, from the Higher Education Policy Institute, raises similar concerns, describing the current regulation of private and for-profit education providers as not coherent.

The government needs to read the report, particularly the section that warns of the problems America has seen with a light-touch approach to regulation of for-profit education providers. We need much stronger checks in place before we start handing over large sums of taxpayers’ money to these companies.

We cannot afford a repeat of what is happening in the US where for-profits are being investigated following a series of scandals. The situation in America has become so bad that Congress has been forced to intervene and is now calling for much tougher checks over accreditation. It’s not often that America is leading the call for tighter regulation.

One of the companies currently being investigated for deceiving students is Apollo, the parent company of the UK’s largest for-profit provider BPP University College, who are reported to have lobbied David Willletts to water down regulations and give them greater access to public funding.

They have already secured major concessions. The government last month increased the maximum loan available for students at private universities from just over £3,000 to £6,000, in a move David Willletts described as a step towards bringing in more private providers of higher education.

Although the government has been embarrassed by universities’ decisions to charge such high fees, and its inability to do anything about it, ministers should not rush to embrace for-profit providers that offer cut price degrees. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to events across the pond, where for-profit companies relied on the light-touch regulation in order to grow. 

This government does not need another higher education disaster and it’s essential that ministers drop their ideological commitment to deregulation and start looking at the evidence. To do otherwise would be to blindly repeat the worst mistakes made in the US – and the consequences for our young people and for taxpayers could be disastrous. 

As today’s report shows, in its study of for-profits in America, publicly-funded education delivered by established providers offers a better quality of education.

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