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A Manifesto for Independent Providers

  • 10 June 2024
  • By Alex Proudfoot
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive of Independent Higher Education (IHE), the UK membership organisation and national representative body for independent providers of higher education, professional training and pathways.
  • The IHE manifesto for higher education, with 10 recommendations to the next Government, was released today and is available to view at

The higher education sector, like the country, faces a fork in the road ahead. Perhaps it is nothing but the heady sensation of summer coming down the track, but it feels like change is in the air.

Something has to give. Pressure on the financial model of universities has been building up until the barometer glass starts to crack. The unit of resource has plummeted. Jobs are under threat. Students cannot afford to give their course the concentration it deserves, so distracted are many with making ends meet. Meanwhile employers of all sizes and in every sector of the economy are crying out for committed and correctly skilled workers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The country can rediscover its optimism. An education and training system finetuned to solving our productivity puzzle and building resilience would be a perfect start. Where education leads, opportunity follows. An educated nation is a confident nation, and one which the winds of fortune will surely soon favour.

This is the optimistic spirit in which IHE offers our new manifesto for higher education. Our members do not share the declinist view of the country or of the sector that some have only recently begun to call home. Most started from nothing but the seed of an idea, carried forward by a dogged individual or by a small group of pioneers from a particular industry or from whichever community their perspective on the world was formed. They share our vision for growth: of the higher education sector; of the industries they work with; and of the economy, both in their local area and the UK as a whole.

We can realise this vision together. What we propose is a new strategic approach to education and training. A new understanding between Government and the sector that only by working together can the country’s potential truly be unlocked. A new recognition that further and higher education should not be separate silos, distanced by decades of differential funding and regulatory frameworks, and never the twain shall meet. An emerging tertiary education system that doubles down on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement developed by the Department for Education, extends it to postgraduate level for advanced professional development, and strengthens its links with industry by incentivising employers and their staff to build on its foundations.

The flexibility and specialisation that would revolutionise the choices available to learners at every age and stage of education will not be possible under the current regulatory regimes. They will need to change fundamentally. A regulator that takes seriously a core mission of promoting lifelong opportunities to learn – to upskill and to retrain across the broadest possible range of academic, technical and professional pathways – cannot simultaneously be micromanaging attendance policies, the retention of students’ work and their individual command of the English language. Nor should it be administering a quasi-judicial complaints scheme for an eccentric interpretation of free speech. The seemingly unstoppable infringement of institutional autonomy by the current regulator in England must be curbed and wherever possible reversed, if for no other reason (though there are many) than they really should have bigger fish to fry.

This is why we are calling for a Tertiary Education Commission to be established, with its first order of business being to review the multiple regulatory systems and processes which exist across post-18 education, and which right now any provider attempting to offer genuinely flexible lifelong learning must wrestle with in a continuous balancing act. Duly empowered by the Secretary of State, the Commission should intervene right away to achieve a more streamlined and coordinated approach, but in due course may decide that some regulators and their systems should be merged.

Alongside embedding more system thinking and tertiary approaches into education and training, the second pillar of the domestic reforms we propose in our Manifesto is technical education. We do this brilliantly in the UK, but you wouldn’t know it. We don’t talk about it much. There is a pervasive cultural assumption – a mumbled dinner-party agreement – that technical education is something ‘other countries do’. Germany, in the main. It isn’t true.

As well as the excellent technical provision many UK universities offer, we also have some of the most exciting and innovative independent technical institutes. The Academy of Live Technology in Wakefield is forging ahead in the live events industry with new programmes, pedagogies and even entirely new disciplines. Leiths School of Food and Wine in London has been at the pinnacle of culinary education for decades. MetFilm School in London and Berlin is renowned in the industry for delivering the technical know-how and creative skills that today’s competitive global film production industry demands. Their expansion to Leeds shows they are ready to step in to support UK industry when and where it expands.

The current frameworks for the funding, regulation and qualifications of technical education today are archaic and do not meet industry the way our members do. Almost all the available public funding goes towards the specialist education of the past, elite names made on the world stage decades ago. There is very little seed funding available for the technical education of the future and no UK investment funds that specialise in education.

More importantly though – and happily, more easily fixable by government – is the way that current policy makes it impossible for a high-quality technical institute to design, deliver and award its own qualifications. Degree Awarding Powers are integral to the success of universities. New courses can be developed and brought to market quickly. No external authorisation or bureaucratic process is required. But a technical institute that does not wish to offer predominantly Degrees cannot even apply for DAPs if more than half its students are at Level 5 or below – which, for a flexible provider enrolling them on one year at a time, will always be the case. Catch 22! The alternative is to set up one’s own awarding body to be regulated by Ofqual, subject to maddening conditions around the separation of governance and even then still required to submit every new qualification for admission to its register.

This is why we need new Technical Education Awarding Powers to support a new generation of specialist institutes that we can truly recognise for their technical excellence and can celebrate just as we do our world-leading universities.

This is just a taste of the ideas that we explore and the policies we put forward in our manifesto for higher education. I look forward to discussing them further with all of you. We will take from these conversations what I’m sure will be robust challenges and real-world examples of the issues we face, and develop the proposals further in papers to be published in due course. In the meantime, I commend this Manifesto to you all and look forward to hearing what you think.

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1 comment

  1. How do members envision the growth of the higher education sector?

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