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Alison Wolf: Private university plans 'risk catastrophe'

The UK faces an “American-style catastrophe” if plans to make it easier for private colleges to become universities go ahead, Professor Alison Wolf has warned. 

Wolf, who wrote a seminal report on vocational education on behalf of the Coalition government, said that proposals to speed up the process of obtaining the university title would end up benefiting sub-standard providers.

“Sweeping general legislation might make it easier to set up a really small, innovative, educationally wonderful institution, but it’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe,” she said. 

“I think we’ll have those [poor quality] colleges on a much greater scale, and I think they’re going to recruit all over Europe because that’s the obvious place to get your huge numbers.” 

Currently, colleges have to pass through a strict regulatory framework before they can achieve their own degree-awarding powers or be called a university.

However, in a green paper published last November, the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) proposed expediting the process – a move that it said would help increase capacity and choice in the system. 

It said it would do this while upholding the highest standards, and watchdog QAA has said it will publish scrutiny reports on applicants whether they are successful or not. 

However, Wolf, who is professor of public sector management at King’s College London, said that the policy would more than likely result in students taking out loans to buy worthless degrees – a problem that has blighted the US higher education system.

Over the past 10 years, American private colleges have faced a barrage of criticism for their alleged aggressive recruitment practices and misappropriation of public money. It has led to a major crack down by government and resulted in the closure of numerous campuses.

The UK had a taste of such problems during the last parliament, when the Coalition opened up the student loans system to so called ‘alternative providers’ (APs). It led to a proliferation of lower quality colleges offering HND programmes, as the number of students at APs increased from 6,600 to about 60,000, and the number of student loans awarded increased dramatically.

Several quality scandals followed, and a 2014 National Audit Office report found that thousands of students enrolled at such colleges had not been registered to take recognised exams. 

BIS subsequently capped the number of funded student places at all APs. However, higher quality providers have since complained that they were unfairly tarnished by the move, with supporters adding that they are typically more affordable than most mainstream universities. 

Responding to Wolf’s comments, Alison Wheaton, the chief executive of GSM London, said: “New providers like [us] are breaking the stranglehold that elitist institutions – and those that seek to be like them – hold over higher education. We're reaching out and creating opportunities for students that don’t even register with the academic establishment.”

A BIS spokesman told the Guardian: “We are consulting on a range of options to increase choice for students and encourage greater focus in universities on teaching quality and employability.

"Enabling more high-quality providers to enter the sector will help to extend higher education in areas that currently lack provision.”

Posted on: 23/03/2016

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