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Where is the diversity? There are far fewer registered higher education providers than expected – so how is levelling up meant to happen?

  • 14 March 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

This morning, the Campaign for Learning is publishing a new collection of pieces in Post-16 Education and Skills Levelling up Everyone, Everywhere.

The contribution by Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, which is titled ‘A “Higher Education Institution” in Every Community’, is reprinted here.

When his brief was education policy, Michael Gove came across as a sceptic of modern universities. A decade on, after his appointment as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, he seemed to have undergone a volte face. When questioned at the 2021 Conservative Party Conference, he implied new higher education institutions should be established to boost more deprived places, ‘such as Doncaster, Grimsby and Thanet.’

For many of us, this belated epiphany was welcome. After all, the difference between a city and a great city is said to be the presence of a university (or two). But, alas, it looks like it was a false dawn.

The Levelling Up white paper includes some positive language about the capacity of higher education institutions to rejuvenate areas, noting ‘Innovative new models of skills-based HE also have an important role to play in levelling up places.’ It claims ‘the process of becoming an HE provider [has become] more straightforward’ and promises to reduce the obstacles against new institutions even further:

The UK Government will continue to work with the OfS [Office for Students] to reform barriers for entry to the English HE sector, so that new high quality HE providers can open across England, joining the 400+ providers already on the register, to increase access to HE particularly in towns and cities without access to this provision.

Yet this commitment is worth little because it underestimates the current ‘barriers to entry’. It is true that more than 400 institutions are on the OfS’s Register. But the target number for 2021/22 was much higher, at 555 institutions. Of the 418 providers that are on the Register, just 71 are in the ‘Approved’ category, which was designed to help ‘alternative providers’. That is under half of the predicted number for 2021/22 of 159.

If anything, life under the OfS is harder, not easier, for the sort of innovative provision that the Levelling Upwhite paper heralds. After the OfS was established, some of England’s flagship alternative providers – including Regent’s University, the New College of the Humanities and Richmond, The American International University in London – found life so hard they were forced to partner with foreign entities. In the early months of the OfS, one of the largest alternative providers, GSM London, which successfully educated tens of thousands of disadvantaged students in Greenwich and Greenford, went bust.

The one thing uniting everyone who has tried to get a brand new higher education institution off the ground is that it is much harder than they initially thought it would be. It does not matter if the backers are entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or multinational companies, it remains excessively hard to do.

So progress on the Levelling Up white paper’s vision of new higher education institutions serving as agents of regeneration had stalled even before the document was published. The key problem now is that the OfS has a long and growing list of priorities and the germination of new higher education institutions remains a long way down its priority list. And the white paper’s complacency about the current situation means no specific proposals are then put forward to improve the situation.

This disappointing picture is at one with the absence of any serious budget to deliver on the white paper’s other proposals, for serious supply-side activity needs large new capital expenditure. Such funding is unlikely to come from private sources on anything like the scale necessary to build big new institutions because other sectors offer faster and more secure returns to those with money.

So what is the answer if we are to match the white paper’s promise that new higher education institutions will help levelling up?

  1. First, we need to encourage new plant campuses of existing successful institutions, as with the Anglia Ruskin University initiative in Peterborough. As part of this, we should respond positively to the fact that some institutions abroad may also want to deliver more higher education in the UK.
  2. Secondly, we should consider providing some public (capital) funding to ensure there are sufficient places for students all over the country to soak up the growing demand caused by high levels of aspiration, better schooling and a growth in the number of 18-year olds. If we expect existing institutions to provide all the extra places that we need, many will end up facing the problems that over-large institutions inevitably do, while nothing will be done to deliver levelling up in the parts of the country that currently lack institutions of their own.
  3. Thirdly, we need to ensure institutions are incentivised to deliver not just fully-fledged three-year residential degrees but also the sort of short courses, credit-bearing qualifications and different pedagogies that Ministers hope to support through the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

Without such changes, the ‘human capital’ identified in the white paper as one of the key factors for delivering levelling up will continue to be restricted, hampering individual success, social mobility and regional growth.


  1. Kevin says:

    Why would any young person want to attend a university? The reduction in value of a degree is now widely recognised. Why? Look at the title to the article: ‘Where is the diversity’? In the name of equality (perhaps gravy train) the general public sees standards of education have declined. Critical thought, far from being necessary to identification of truth and fact, is strongly discouraged. Trans equality is the latest iteration of a lunacy endorsed by academia: woe betide anyone who expresses the obvious that it is not the right of a man who now wishes to live as a woman to compete in sports where strength and stamina are crucial; in the name of trans equality women’s rights have been disregarded. So I respectfully request you ask not ‘Where is the diversity’ but rather ‘where are the standards?’

  2. Agree with all three proposals. There is a long and successful history of public institutions establishing new branch campuses which have often gone on to become separate successful universities. Some FE colleges, with local university support, have also gone on to create local universities or university colleges. Lack of organisational memory in Whitehall (or ignoring civil service advice) and the government obsession with the private sector obscured this obvious truth. As for incentives, this and previous governments have always operated funding regimes which favour full-time UG, at the expense of PT and shorter programmes.

  3. A. Williams says:

    Yes, attractive proposals, but… there’s is another trend cutting across this. Many universities are aiming to cut their costs by closing satellite sites (some of which have long and proud traditions as colleges which were absorbed into the old polytechnics), thus damaging the economies of the host towns, and the opportunities for mature and working class applicants, who may be less able or willing to uproot themselves or to travel to the central site – especially if they are not aiming at the full time u/g route.

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