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National Audit Office on alternative providers

  • 2 December 2014

The National Audit Office have today published the Investigation into financial support for students at alternative higher education providers.

It is interesting and timely.* It includes challenges for BIS, HE regulators and alternative providers. And it contains some useful new evidence, including examples of the adverts used to entice people on to courses. But it is not a revealing document in the sense that most of the points were already in the public domain.

It is hard to find many people who think the regulatory system for higher education is optimal – earlier this year, HEPI argued for a new settlement in Unfinished Business: Higher education legislation. Today’s NAO report confirms that case.

But that is very different to opposing the existence of alternative providers, who can offer new opportunities to individuals, to employers and existing institutions wishing to collaborate. The NAO confirm that ‘the alternative provider sector offers access to higher education for students who may not previously have had the opportunity to enter education at this level, such as older students or those from lower socio-economic groups.’ As last week’s CentreForum report showed, alternative providers often hold the key to expansion.

Overall, it is a middle-of-the-road document. While highlighting some problems, it  doesn’t confirm the fears of those who oppose the very principle of opening up the provision of higher education. It suggests the hoops and controls imposed on alternative providers are incomplete and inconsistent, but it disproves those who draw comparisons with the lax regime in force for the old Individual Learner Accounts.

Challenges remain, and politicians need to find the time and inclination to legislate for a better regulatory system, but those who hoped for evidence against having a diverse range of higher education providers won’t find what they are looking for here.


* In one small respect, the report is a little misleading in terms of the historical record. More than once, it links the original announcement on letting students at alternative providers borrow £6,000 a year in tuition fee loans to the 2011 white paper, Students at the heart of the system. Although that did include a section on student finance, the white paper was primarily about the need to implement a new legal framework to reflect earlier decisions about student support. The policy to let students at alternative providers borrow £6,000 was adopted and announced at a press conference some months before the white paper appeared and earlier than the NAO imply.

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