Coalition must reconsider privatisation of Higher Education before it’s too late

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, calls on the government to reconsider the privatisation of higher education before it's too late.

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

This week will see private college heads called before the business, innovation and skills select committee. Their grilling comes shortly after UCU highlighted a report, Diverse provision in higher education: options and challenges (doc), which raises major concerns about for-profit educational institutions.

The damning, report, intially published without fanfare in February by the government-funded Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), warns that for-profit colleges could damage the UK’s higher education global reputation.

Universities minister David Willetts has made it quite clear he wants to open up a market in higher education and last month, announced a major policy change that will facilitate it: from 2012, students at private universities in England will be eligible for state-funded loans for tuition fees of up to £6,000 a year. As things stand, students on some courses at private universities are eligible for annual loans of up to £3,375 for fees.

The imminent white paper on higher education is expected to further change legislation to allow for-profits to take a greater role. But the report highlights that for-profits’ short and long-term goals may not match the national interest and could lead, as in the case of Australia, to international reputational damage. The report also points out that for-profits are subject to much lighter regulation than mainstream universities and provide less public information about the service they provide to students.

Another concern raised in the report is that for-profits and private providers offer qualifications which may not be widely recognised. The report suggests they may also cherry pick profitable courses and put public universities in financial danger.

UCU has already highlighted the experience of for-profit colleges in America. Scandals around the selling of courses to students have prompted an investigation by the US Senate into companies such as Apollo. Apollo owns the University of Phoenix, which is subject to numerous US complaints about its course quality and unethical marketing, and recently acquired the UK-based for-profit institution BPP. Its chief executive, Carl Lygo, will be quizzed by the select committee on Tuesday.

Writing in Times Higher Education last week, Alan Ryan, visiting fellow in politics at Princeton University, drew a parallel between the sub-prime mortgage industry and for-profit education. He highlighted the fact that higher education debt has overtaken credit card debt in America and that for-profit colleges’ income is overwhelmingly provided through federally supported loans.

It has become clear that millions of vulnerable people in the US have been mis-sold poor quality, inappropriate qualifications using federal money. Yet in the UK, the proposed expansion of the for-profits by the government seems to be like a runaway train with ministers unable or unwilling to stop the same happening here. As the experiences of Australia and the US show, allowing the expansion of for-profit providers will only undermine the hard won reputation we have built.

In the interests of students, parents and our universities, we urge the government to pause and reconsider their privatisation programme before it is too late.

11 Responses to “Coalition must reconsider privatisation of Higher Education before it’s too late”

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