This is an extract from a speech Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, will deliver today to the Independent HE Annual Conference.

One oddity of the debates during the passage of the new Higher Education and Research Act (2017) was a lack of discussion about the types of higher education institution that we are now to have in the UK.

There are officially three types:

  • Registered providers, which will be formally recognised but receive no preferential treatment.
  • Approved providers, which will have uncapped fees but no entitlement to direct public funding for teaching or research, while their students will have restricted access to student finance.
  • Approved (fee cap) providers, which will have their fees (and loans) capped at £9,000 per annum (plus inflation where applicable) and which may receive public funding for teaching and research.

This raises four issues that need further discussion than they have had to date.

  • The new system replicates most of the features of the current system (which helps explain why it has received too little focus). For example, as now, you have to be in the most tightly-regulated category to receive Quality-Related research funding. That is strange given this funding is meant to be distributed according to quality, as the name suggests – not the precise institutional form.
  • The Government predicts 57 alternative providers will be in the Approved fee cap category. Perhaps they would argue that this shows there is a clear path for them to resemble traditional providers. But, if they are in the Approved fee cap providers, in what sense are they ‘alternative’? They will be regulated in the same way as Oxbridge, the red bricks, the plate-glass universities, the former polytechnics and the newer universities created after 1992.
  • The basic category is exceptionally lightweight. These institutions will be able to say they are registered with the Office for Students and at a cost of just £1,000. But what will happen when one of them has a serious problem? Rightly or wrongly, the reputation of the Office for Students will be in the frame too.

  • Lastly, if you look carefully at the Government’s own data, you will see the biggest category is a fourth one: unregulated providers. It is estimated there will be over 550 providers outside of the system in the first year of the Office of Students. The legislation that recently joined the statute book was originally conceived as putting different sorts of higher education providers on the same playing field. While such a uniform arrangement would have been insufficiently responsive, it is still – surely – odd that around half of the country’s higher education providers will not even get near to the pitch.

Ministers no doubt hope their legislation has put the most tricky contemporary higher education issues to bed. For those serving in alternative providers, the new world is clearer and largely preferable to the old one – and presumably much better than it would be under a Corbyn-led Government committed to a new National Education Service.

But, although many parts of the new legislation are welcome and overdue, it seems exceedingly unlikely to be the anything like the final word.