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Does the multiplication of alternative providers call for a new review of higher education?

  • 20 October 2023
  • By Gill Evans
  • This post was kindly authored for HEPI by Gill Evans, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge.
  • Last week, HEPI published a new Policy Note on the Robbins Report and this blog is in a series we are running to mark the 60th anniversary of the Report’s publication in October 1963 – you can access them all here.

The proposals of the Robbins Report on Higher Education considered the role of providers of tertiary education. It concluded that to ‘confer degree-giving powers on all the existing’ Further Education Colleges ‘would be inappropriate because of the number involved, the variation in their sizes and the diversity of standards’. It suggested that the ‘status of these colleges would best be assured and the problem of degrees satisfactorily solved by a closer association with the universities’. FE colleges now offer higher education in the form of Level 4 and 5 courses, some including Foundation degrees or Level 6 courses, but the relationship of FE with HE remains unresolved.

Robbins was more welcoming towards the inclusion among higher education providers of the then ‘Colleges of Advanced Technology’. It suggested they should be given charters as ‘technological universities’ and become publicly funded by being ‘placed as soon as possible under the Grants Commission’. It also regarded Regional Colleges and Area Colleges as potential universities:

as at once providing the seedbed for some further growth of institutions to university status and as fostering, in addition to their characteristic work in science and technology, educational experiments in fields such as the teaching of modern languages and many aspects of business studies.

It therefore proposed that ‘students taking advanced courses in the Regional and Area Colleges should have the same opportunity for degrees as those in university institutions’. Thereafter, from 1965, the Council for National Academic Awards supervised the award of degrees outside universities until it was abolished when the legislation of 1992 made the polytechnics into universities.

It was soon realised that a fresh review of higher education would be needed. Reporting in 1997, Dearing, with Higher Education in the learning society as its title, tackled its task much as Robbins had, by considering how best higher education could meet society’s needs, ‘contributing to the health of society, and as an economic necessity’. Dearing too was keen to see ‘the further growth of higher education, at least in the short term’, with ‘the Higher National Certificate, the Higher National Diploma and other analogous awards’. (These were to be defined as Levels 4 and 5 by the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-awarding Bodies (FHEQ) and the Regulatory Framework for National Assessments for England. )   

Dearing was optimistic that graduate ‘employment rates’ were ‘on average, above those for people who were qualified to enter higher education but did not do so’ and ‘pay levels’ were ‘on average, above those for people who were qualified to enter higher education but did not do so’. This strengthened the argument, that those benefitting from higher education should expect to pay for it, which was to support the introduction and subsequent raising of tuition fees.

Dearing was confidently expected to remain a reliable guide for two decades. However, it was overtaken by events before concerns it raised had been systematically addressed. The Government expressed the confidence that the nation would benefit from the creation of private ‘alternative providers’, for-profit, not-for-profit or charitable,  though without doing its homework about the potential effect on higher education provision in England.

These were not to be publicly funded, except indirectly through tuition-fee loans to students from the taxpayer-funded Student Loans Company, which were initially kept off the balance sheet. As tuition fees rose they made the creation of such providers of higher education financially attractive even if they did not have degree-awarding powers or university title. Between 2010 and 2014-15 the number of alternative providers had risen from 94 to 122, raising considerably the sums being paid out in student loans to their students. That led in 2016 to a report on Understanding the Market of Alternative Providers and their Students, commissioned by the Department of Business Innovation and Schools.

Concerns about rising cost had already prompted inquiries by the National Audit Office from 2014, about the risk to the taxpayer. When Dearing had looked at ‘completion rates’ in the then universities they were found to be highly satisfactory. An NAO follow-up in 2017 found evidence that alternative higher education providers had higher non-continuation rates than ‘the rest of the higher education sector’, over 20% compared with 10% for the publicly-funded universities. Between January 2015 and November 2016, there were 32 potential investigations and ‘overall’, the Department had ‘taken action against providers in more than 30 cases where its investigations or data on, for example, non-continuation rates’, had ‘identified providers who are not performing at expected levels’. It was decided that alternative providers were to have designation for student funding  ‘limited to one year and the Department would ‘undertake annual checks to reconfirm designation’.

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee made its own inquiry into the growing problem, reporting in 2015. It found that ‘between 2010/11 and 2013/14, there was an extraordinary rise in the number of students claiming support for courses at alternative providers, from 7,000 to 53,000.’ Public money paid to these students, through the loans system, including maintenance loans and grants, had ‘increased from around £50 million to around £675 million’.  The PAC identified among ‘approximately 140’ alternative providers’ a number of unacceptable practices, including ‘colleges recruiting on the streets’, with ‘indications that students are not being registered for their qualifications; and ‘indications that some students were accepted onto courses without adequate English language skills’. It had found ‘dropout rates higher than 20% at some alternative providers’. The PAC pointed  out that it had ‘warned the Department about the consequences of expanding the alternative provider sector without a robust regulatory framework to protect public money’.

The Student Loans Company promised that it had ‘learned lessons to ensure that further ineligible payments do not occur in the future’ and said it was improving its records to make it ‘easier to prevent mistakes when prospective borrowers apply for student loans’. in 2016 a White paper,Success as a Knowledge Economy promised to take in hand the problems arising in connection with  Levels 4 and 5 performance so as to improve ‘consumer confidence’.

This was not an attempted reform of higher education such as Robbins and Dearing had looked for but not achieved, merely damage limitation. In the Commons on 15 September 2016, during the framing of what was to become the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017, Roberta Blackman-Woods raised ‘the thorny issue of what a university is and how we ensure that the measures in the Bill do not allow for or enable the dumbing down of the sector as a whole’.[1]  However in the Lords on 6 December 2016  Viscount Leckie remained confident that  ‘Diversity and innovation within the sector are important because there is no longer a one-size-fits-all model for university education’. It was an irony that the alternative providers were proving anything but diverse or innovative.

Dearing had had some concerns about the balance between subjects of study, concerns which it said were expressed ‘especially but not exclusively’, by ‘employers and professional bodies’. The new alternative providers consistently favoured the same narrow range of subjects.

For the most part, found a study in 2019 of Private providers of higher education in the UK, especially in the ‘for-profit providers’, courses were offered below degree level, in the same limited range of subjects, above all Business and Management. Developments in ‘management education’ had been ‘taking place in various universities and colleges’ in the 1960s, though Robbins saw that as a higher degree subject, recommending ‘that there should be developed on a larger scale two postgraduate schools of management studies’.

The alternative providers also offered ‘subjects allied to medicine’ such as ‘health care’.[2]  The content of the courses in accountancy and legal studies were not necessarily recognised by the relevant professional bodies as qualifing the holder to proceed to Chartered Accountant status or to become a Solicitor or Barrister without still further preliminary study.    

Proposals in 2012 to give HEFCE ‘a new regulatory role’ from the academic year beginning in 2013 had come to nothing when it became clear that there would be no new higher education legislation during that Parliament. When the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 replaced HEFCE with the Office for Students as a new Regulator it began to scrutinise the satisfactoriness of the courses these providers were offering. Of particular concern have proved to be the quality of the Business and Management courses because in the view of the OfS ‘any intervention made to improve those courses’ would have a ‘positive impact on a significant number of students’.

The multiplication of alternative providers created a need for more lecturers, but for teaching-only. Research had little or no toe-hold in these providers.  Understanding the Market found that:

Three quarters of alternative providers (75 per cent) employed ten or fewer full-time equivalent staff. Seventy seven per cent also reported using sessional or freelance staff to deliver one off or a small number of sessions on HE level courses. The majority of alternative providers had a least one full-time equivalent member of teaching staff (82 per cent). Among those that did, over half (56 per cent) had at least one member of staff who was research active. 

When in 2004 the decision was taken to allow institutions in England and Wales offering only taught degrees to be granted university title, it encouraged a number of alternative providers to aspire to both. Alternative providers such as BPP University and Regent’s University London had gained university title before the creation of OfS, but since 2019 the OfS has authorised or renewed taught degree-awarding powers for a few alternative providers, on a temporary (though renewable) basis.

Professional, vocational and technical study have become popular in alternative providers and require lecturers with relevant practitioner experience as well as expert knowledge.  In 2023 it was noted by Wonkhe that there could be ‘specific skills gaps, especially in some professional areas such as finance, IT, and HR’ with higher education providers often unable ‘to compete on salary or conditions’ with commercial employers.

The range of appropriate areas of study continues to widen, but uncertainly. The White Paper of 2016 already saw a need to add Higher Technical Qualifications at Levels 4 and 5. However, urged by Government, the OFS  proposed in July 2023 ‘to separate higher technical qualifications from other Level 4 and 5 qualifications’ in its ‘student outcomes measures’, treating them as a distinct type of higher education’. The intention was to give students ‘early access to the lifelong loan entitlement’.

That encouraged a ‘trial’ in September 2022 of the idea of allowing students to achieve a qualification by taking a series of short courses. One of the reasons given was the fact that, despite growing employer demand, only 4% of students under 25 gained a Higher Technical Qualification. Proposals included a Life-Long Learning plan, designed to permit the building of a qualification with the aid of a series of short courses for which student loans would be available through special Government bursaries for the purpose. Providers were invited to participate, with the enticement of gaining additional tuition-fee funding by this route.

A further addition affecting the assumption that lecturers in higher education would normally be academic was the introduction of ‘degree apprenticeships’ in 2015-6, potentially even up to Masters Level 7. Under the supervision of the Office for Students it became the responsibility of a provider with degree-awarding powers to determine the degree content of the apprenticeship thus ‘ensuring academic rigour’. Even ordinary apprenticeship ‘starts’ had, however, halved in recent years and degree apprenticeships were to prove less of an attraction than had been expected.   As a Vice-Chancellor commented ‘we would grow higher apprenticeships more but payment is unreliable and inadequate’,  and ‘drop-out rates were unduly high’.

All this has put in question any assumption that a lecturer in higher education will necessarily be an ‘academic’ in the traditional sense.  Robbins described the implication that a university teacher:

has a unique freedom in arranging his work and in following his own bent. On paper the hours of work demanded of him are not heavy. He does not have to submit to office hours and has a wide liberty in the interpretation of his professional duties.

‘an institution needs to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective quality and enhancement systems’[3] was prompted by the Lindop Report (1985). [4] It was borrowed by Keith Joseph, in a Written Answer to the House of Commons on 17 March 1986. As he put it:

The most effective safeguard of an institution’s academic standards is the existence within it of a strong, cohesive and self-critical academic community.

The protections guarding this expectation are twofold: the academic’s possession of specialist expertise gained personally at the frontier of research and an expectation of the appointment of teaching-and-research staff to retirement age. Neither is now a norm, even in the publicly-funded universities, with ‘teaching-only’ staff and short-term and fixed contracts multiplying. The profile of teaching staff in alternative providers falls far short of these norms.

 There can be no easy going back on the policy of multiplication of higher education providers without reform of the supervision of its implementation. The Office for Students continues to express confidence in the value of the addition of alternative providers as vehicles of innovation and diversity. Publishing new guidance in June 2023 it underlined ‘the OfS’s work to facilitate diversity and innovation within English higher education’ and asserted that ‘granting degree awarding powers to new and existing providers results in greater choice of high-quality courses for students and introduces new approaches to learning and teaching to the sector’.

The OfS has enormous powers to control the shape of higher education in England. It grants degree-awarding powers and university title.  It creates its own Register of providers, approved under its own Conditions of Registration. The level of approval it awards affects the level of fees a provider may charge. An OfS ‘dashboard’ lists three ‘outcomes measures’ as ‘continuation’ (beyond the first year of a course); ‘completion’ (the gaining of a qualification after four years); and ‘progression’ (gaining ’managerial or professional employment’, further study or other ‘positive outcomes’). These stand at some distance from the expectations underpinning the definition of a ‘self-critical academic community’ as essential to an institution’s being a university.

The Higher Education and Research Act refers to ‘academic staff’ but without defining them.  The concept was still remembered when in the Lords on 6 December 2016 the Bishop of Winchester suggested that ‘surely it would be wise to include a short outline of what we mean by the idea of a university today’. He too referred to ‘the  1991 definition’, which had been quoted to him by the Minister for Universities and Science. It must be ‘a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective assurance and enhancement systems’.[5] It would be a pity if it was lost without hard thought on its importance to the future shape of higher education in England.

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[1] HC 15 September 2016.

[2] Stephen Hunt and Vikki Boliver, ‘Private providers of higher education in the UK: mapping the terrain’, Centre for Global Higher Education, Working Paper Series, 47 (April, 2019),

[3] HC Written Answers16 December 1991.

[4] Lindop report, “Academic Validation in Public Sector Higher Education” (1985) Cmnd. 9501. Academic validation in public sector higher education : the report of the committee of enquiry into the academic validation of degree courses in public section higher education. Norman Lindop.

[5] ”.—[Official Report, Commons. 16/12/1991; col. 31W.]

1 comment

  1. Tim Blackman says:

    Owning an alternative provider in the English HE funding system can be very profitable because of how they often provide a narrow range of courses that are run at a low cost and undertake little or no research or STEM provision. One private HE college I looked at the accounts for makes its four owners £2-3m profit each year, with just 1600 students. Universities with comprehensive course offers are using the courses they run at a lower cost not to make profits for their owners but (along with international students) to cross-subsidise the cost of providing STEM subjects and undertaking research, both of which are not fully funded by the funding system.

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