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Challenger institutions: A response to the Alternative White Paper

  • 23 June 2016
  • By Gordon Sweeney

This guest blog has been contributed by Gordon Sweeney, who is Head of Education at Point Blank Music School (http://www.pointblanklondon.com).

In mid-June, a group of academics published an Alternative White Paper outlining their vision for the future of higher education. Unfortunately, the Alternative White Paper included various misconceptions about alternative providers.

  1. ‘The White paper proposes to facilitate the entry of ‘for profit’ providers and to provide them with the title of ‘university’ with immediate effect’ (Alternative White Paper, p.5)

This is contrary to what the real white paper says. On page 30, it states:

high quality providers could complete the journey from starting as new providers with probationary DAPs to university title after 6 years.

It is true that new providers could be granted probationary Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) for three years to enable a track record ahead of full DAP. But university Title (UT) could not be granted until a second three-year period has elapsed, making six years in total.

Moreover, in order to secure probationary DAPs an institution will have to pass through rigorous processes, including Financial Sustainability, Management and Governance (FSGM) checks. Probationary DAPs will also be more limited than full-blown DAPs. According to the same page of the white paper quoted above:

In order to protect the interests of students and HE reputation, holders of probationary DAPs will not be able to validate degrees at other institutions or be eligible for UT.

  1. ‘These new providers are likely to compete for cost-sensitive, debt-adverse students’ (p.5)

The Government’s white paper maps two pathways for alternative providers wishing to access public funding. Institutions can become ‘approved’ and receive up to £6,000 a year in student loans from each student in receipt of public support. Or they can become ‘approved, fee cap’ providers, in which case they will have to agree an access agreement with the Office for Students in return for receiving up to £9,000 a year per student in student loans.

The authors of the Alternative White Paper incorrectly assume providers receiving up to £6,000 per student will have their fees capped at this level – it talks of a ‘a low fee (£6,000 cap)’. On the contrary, these institutions will (and, indeed, already are) free to charge whatever they like. So it is likely that alternative providers will continue to serve a very heterogeneous group of students.

  1. ‘The curriculum will be centrally provided’ (AWP, p.5)

If an institution applies for DAPs (or probationary DAPs), this will allow them to write and award their own degrees rather than taking off-the-shelf solutions, like Higher National qualifications – indeed, that is precisely the purpose of applying for DAPs.

There are two ways that alternative providers are likely to deliver courses: using their own DAPs; or through a validation arrangement with a partner. The validation model has a collaborative element in the course design and the content is peer assessed through external examiners. When writing a new degree course through either method, the curriculum has to go through the same checks and balances as with other higher education institutions.

The Alternative White Paper claims that ‘the replacement of higher education with “training” will lead to a fundamental de-skilling’ but the Government’s proposals for alternative providers will not lead to such a replacement. As the Alternative White Paper suggests, there may be an element of for-profit providers targeting ‘skills training rather than university education within this HE architecture.’ But, as the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications levels are applied to the same standards as at universities, university-style education will still have to be present in a degree programme.

Some institutions may design new vocational qualifications up to Level 5 rather than rely on existing options, such as HNDs, but this just goes to show that institutions will have considerable autonomy in designing courses.

  1. ‘their [alternative providers] model will be online course material with “local” tutorial support’ (AWP, p.5)

There are few grounds for thinking alternative providers are especially distinctive here. Online learning is an area that affects the whole sector: for example, the University of Leeds are to allow credits gained on MOOCs to be used towards degrees. As the head of an institution with a highly successful and innovative online school, I know that developing and updating online course materials is rarely the simple, or even the most cost-effective, method of delivering a qualification. So there is nothing to suggest that the innovations Jo Johnson hopes for from challenger institutions will generally amount to a reliance on flipped classrooms in place of traditional education.

Perhaps the critics of the Government’s approach to challenger institutions have been taken in a little too much by the (pro and anti) spin surrounding the various announcements? If they take a closer look at the actual proposals and how they are likely to affect the range of options available to prospective students, they may find a different picture to the one they imagine.

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