The Public Accounts Committee hearing this afternoon on alternative providers of higher education was a bruising affair. Margaret Hodge was in the Chair and she and her cross-party members ferociously grilled the witnesses from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Student Loans Company, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Pearson UK. Martin Donnelly, the Permanent Secretary (and thus accounting officer) of BIS was the main target for questions. The word ‘scandal’ was used more than once to describe the loss to taxpayers of financial support that was paid to students who were not entitled to it.
The session was Paxman-esque: tough but in truth a little unenlightening. Constant pummelling made it hard for the star witness to deliver the best available counter-narrative. It won’t have left anyone feeling positive, but the session may turn out to be a dress rehearsal as the PAC have announced their intention to return to the issues in March 2015.
Arguably, one thing the current interest in alternative providers confirms is their need for an effective mission group.
Policymakers know they can go to the Russell Group to find out what research-intensive universities think, but they are much less clear about who they should talk to when setting policy in relation to alternative providers. Moreover, a mission group containing a subset of alternative providers would allow those which seek to do the right things to differentiate themselves from the pack. StudyUK are one body that has stepped up to the plate already and could in time fulfil the role.
There are some significant obstacles. In particular, it is hard to give a clear answer to why such heterogeneous organisations should be expected to become bedfellows. Wouldn’t it be better for alternative providers to work with existing mission groups wherever possible? Maybe so and perhaps mission-group land will recalibrate itself in time.
But with a new PAC hearing, an election and a spending review around the corner, is there time to wait?