Here comes the private HE sector?

Potentially huge news this morning: the Government has granted a private sector enterprise – BPP – the right to call itself a university college, as the BBC reports:

The UK’s first new private sector university college for more than 30 years is being announced by the universities minister.

David Willetts will allow London-based BPP, which has 14 regional branches, to become a university college.

The new college, which offers law and business degrees, wants to expand into health and teaching degrees.

BPP College of Professional Studies was granted degree-awarding powers in 2007. It was owned by BPP Holdings plc, which was acquired by Apollo Global, Inc in July 2009 for $607m. Apollo Global is part of the same group that owns the University of Phoenix – the largest and possibly the most controversial private for-profit university in the USA.

I think this is even more significant than the press is making out. “First new private sector university college for more than 30 years” is true, but misleading. So far as I know, this is the first time ever in the UK that a private, for-profit company has been given the title of university college. And few will doubt that the full ‘university’ title will follow.

The only other private university in the UK is the University of Buckingham, founded 30 years ago. You could also count the College of Law, which doesn’t get direct state subsidy and now has its own degree-awarding powers. It’s worth noting that the University of Buckingham and the College of Law are both not-for-profit charities, not companies. Buckingham is has a Royal Charter and Statutes and everything, it just doesn’t get any money (directly) from the Government.

As you’d imagine, this development is not wholly welcome. The BBC quotes Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, the university teachers’ union:

“Today’s news could mark the beginning of a slippery slope for academic provision in this country,” she said.

“Encouraging the growth of private providers and making it easier for them to call themselves universities would be a disaster for the UK’s academic reputation. It would also represent a huge threat to academic freedom and standards.”

“Private providers are not accountable to the public and do not deserve to be put in the same league as our universities”

I suspect that whether you want them or not, there will be a substantial expansion of private provision of higher education in the UK. The public sector is facing huge, huge cuts across the board, and HE is emphatically included. This is on top of a long-running funding crisis, with many universities in perilous financial straits already. The capacity to supply degrees is clearly going to fall far short of the demand this Autumn. It’d be very, very surprising if this new Government were not to welcome any offer from the private sector to fill the gap with open arms. One might hope that the whole situation will not get anywhere near as bloody as that artlessly mixed metaphor might suggest.

In my next post, I’m going to do some back-of-the-envelope sums on whether providing HE is a runner as a business model.

Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

9 thoughts on “Here comes the private HE sector?”

  1. It’s not so much “private” as “for profit” that is the issue. Then again, maybe that is not a distinguishing feature either.

    1. Yes – the ‘for profit’ is the real news here. I’m increasingly convinced the Buckingham comparison is slightly spurious – the College of Law is more recent as a private entity.

      Certainly it makes a big difference in social terms, I think. And the link to Apollo/U Phoenix is … Interesting.

  2. Time for you to open your “spurious university of the whole of Britain apart from the bits which already have universities” (was that the right name or did it form an acronym).

    1. Yes! Never did get a good acronym, alas.

      We just need a bit of startup capital and we’re in business.

      I’ll be VC – you in as Dean of Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths And Anything Else That Takes Your Fancy?

Comments are closed.