John Lewis University

With all the changes in university funding, and Deputy PM Nick Clegg’s call this week for a John Lewis economy, is it time for a John Lewis University?

The John Lewis Partnership operates a UK-wide chain of upmarket John Lewis department stores and Waitrose grocery supermarkets. It’s unusual in that the business is owned by its 76,000+ employees, and also unusual in that it seems to be thriving in these very tough economic conditions.

As regular, long-standing readers will know (hello, and how are you both?), I’ve taken an interest in new providers of UK higher education – notably BPP and New College of the Humanities.

In that light, a partnership model for a new university seems very interesting indeed. But I can see some very formidable barriers in the way.

great mosque of damascus 709-15 AD, syria, easter 2004

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Commentary on New College of the Humanities

Something of a rocky debut for the New College of the Humanities (NCH @NewCollegeH), then – it seems that my instant reaction was mild by comparison to many others.

I’ve some points of accuracy to make, in an attempt to clear up a few things. And then I’d like to quote one commentator in particular at some length, because the quotes sum up much of my own view.

Mr. Grumpy Potato
This photo, (CC) BY-SA banger1977 on Flickr, is intended to illustrate a relevant facial expression in a lighthearted way and must not be interpreted as a suggestion that any of the people involved resemble a potato in any other way.

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New College of the Humanities

Well, it certainly is interesting times in UK Higher Education provision.

Today’s news is the emergence of a New College of the Humanities, with a professoriate of (15) academic stars, led by Professor AC Grayling, who will become its first Master when it opens to students in 2012:

A new British college aiming to rival Oxford and Cambridge has been launched by leading academics. [BBC]

They are aiming high – with fees of £18,000 a year, three times the ‘normal’ rate of £6,000. They are, of course, a private, for-profit company, with significant investment behind them. The inspiration is unabashedly from US elite liberal arts institutions. It’s going to be small and selective: they’re looking for three As at A level … and people who can spare £54k plus living expenses.

This appears to be yet another instalment of less than perfect policy coherence in UK academia. Hot on the heels of the Prime Minister very publicly blocking the Minister’s floating of the possibility of paying for ‘off quota’ places … a new venture emerges where you can do just that.  So you can’t buy a place at university … unless you’re able to pay twice the maximum cap on fee loans. I can’t see how this can possibly do anything other than reduce social mobility.

Sorry... Got to go now!

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The Sinister Sausage Machine

There’s a longstanding argument – currently very live in the UK – about whether higher education is or is not a market, or should or should not be.

If it is one at all, it’s not a straightforward market by a long chalk, no matter how hard you might try (if, for example, you are a Government trying to make it in to a market).

In a market, you have sellers, products, and buyers. But in HE these are all unclear.

In fact, I think, the confusion between all these, implicit in the market view of higher education, makes a university look like nothing less than a Sinister Sausage Machine.

Summer = Grill = Hotdogs!
photo (CC) Mike Johnson -

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There is no bubble in UK Higher Education

There’s increasing concern that there is a higher education bubble.

Is there a higher education bubble in the UK?

This is an easy question, with an easy answer: No. There is no higher education bubble in the UK.

(Whether there is one in the US is a very different and much harder question, to which I may return later.)

Free Baby Blowing an Enormous Bubble Creative Commons

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Willetts wants the private HE sector

David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, has just given a speech to the Universities UK Spring Conference. (UUK claims to be the representative organisation for universities in the UK.) It seems that this is as much clarity as we’ll get in the short term on the direction of HE policy, since he announced:

[W]e have decided to take more time on developing the White Paper – in part to test proposals more thoroughly among the sector, students and other experts; in part to learn from how price setting works this Spring.

I’ve not time to analyse it in depth, and there’s some real detail in the first part of the speech that will have some substantial implications.

There’s some substantial stuff in the long-term vision too.

There’s very clear and unequivocal setting out of an increased role for new providers of HE – what I’ve been calling the coming of the private HE sector). It is increasingly clear, if anyone ever seriously doubted it, that this Government is committed to having an increased role for new providers of higher education, and is doing whatever it can to make it happen.

The shift in funding from teaching grant to fees is explicitly intended to make this easier – and:

We will also allow alternative providers to access the generous system of student loans and grants, so their students will also be able to benefit from not having to pay upfront fees.

I look forward to new liberal arts colleges or specialist institutions. And the global higher education providers that operate in many countries from India to Spain to the USA need to know that we will be removing the barriers that stop them operating as universities here as part of our system – provided, of course, that they meet high standards which are a key feature of our higher education system.

There’s also a commitment to disaggregate accreditation/degree-awarding powers and teaching:

Another barrier to open access and contestability is the automatic link between degree awarding powers and teaching. Over the past 50 years, we have created a regulatory system which says that teaching students and awarding degrees must be done by the same institution. And that is certainly one way of doing it, as represented by the institutions in this room. But it is not the only way. Quality standards have to focus on quality alone. They must not protect one way of delivering higher education at the expense of others.

The OER world has long predicted this sort of change. You could describe this as an institution-driven pressure from outside the sector. There’s been some grassroots/bottom-up action here too, with teaching-and-learning activities decoupled from accreditation – think of MOOCs, P2PU, and so on. And now we have a Government producing top-down pressure. Institutions in the middle may well find themselves somewhat squeezed.

I certainly don’t agree with David Willetts on many things (or indeed most), but you can’t reasonably accuse him of not being on top of his brief and the history of the sector. He draws parallels with the HE system from 1850-1950, when the University of London awarded degrees for a wide range of teaching institutions. He also mentioned Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, which is an extraordinary bit of C19th melancholia to reference in a speech setting out plans for the future – ‘eternal note of sadness’ and ‘the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery’ leap out, as does the conclusion:

[…] for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Admittedly he was raising it in order to deny it, saying that Universities are not being left alone in this way. But I know many in the UK HE sector – and indeed many others in Britain – are feeling very much that way, and I’m mildly surprised that Her Britannic Majesty’s Minister of State for Universities and Science chose to cite this at this moment in time.

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Apollo Group results – BPP and University of Phoenix

The Apollo Group – parent company of both the University of Phoenix and BPP (the first for-profit private University College in the UK) – reported its results a couple of months ago. It’s an interesting read, and they certainly seem to have a strong grasp of their situation.

I’m not going to look closely at the academic side of the University of Phoenix part of the business, because Tony Bates has done a comprehensive job of assessing their results from their Annual Academic Report. He gives them an A+ compared to the rest of the system for ‘meeting a real need, in terms of the market it serves’; a B- for quality assurance, “could improve on this a great deal, but then this is a challenge for the whole post-secondary system”; and a D for its graduation rate:

It should be finding a way to get more students graduated, especially given the high level of fees that UofPx’s students are paying, and the financial aid students are getting through Federal grants. On this I would give UofPx a D grade. (But then I would give more or less the same to public institutions on this measure).

He also notes that they make money “by the bucket: $1.04 billion profit in 2009 (before tax), which is more than the total operating budget of most research universities”. They do indeed make a lot of money, and in the rest of this post I’m going to dig in to some of the figures for the University of Phoenix and – closer to home – BPP.

(cc) mikebaird on Flickr

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