A report from the government-funded Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has warned that the government’s policy of encouraging ‘for-profit’ higher education providers could damage the UK’s higher education global reputation.
The report was published in February, but received little attention until the University and College Union (UCU) drew attention to it today (22 May). UCU represents academic and teaching staff.
They quote the report as suggesting that profitmaking institutions may have goals that do not match the national interest. In Australia, the practices of private providers of higher education have been blamed for international reputational damage.
The report points out that 'for profit' institutions are subject to much lighter regulation than mainstream universities and provide less public information about the service they provide to students. It adds that private providers sometimes offer qualifications which are not widely recognised.
UCU have drawn attention to an aspect of the report which suggests that profitmaking institutions may 'cherry-pick' profitable courses and put public universities in financial danger.
The union said that the report’s warnings are backed up by the experience of the USA. Scandals around the selling of courses to students have prompted an investigation by the US Senate into companies such as Apollo and have seen profitmaking institutions described as ‘sub-prime education’.
Apollo, which is subject to numerous US complaints about its course quality and allegedly unethical marketing, already owns the UK-based private institution BPP.
Following the report's revelations, UCU said they will be writing to the universities minister, David Willetts, calling on him to set out what steps the government are taking to address the report's concerns and protect the reputation of UK higher education.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee will be questioning profitmaking higher education providers on Tuesday (24 May), including BPP chief executive Carl Lygo.
UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt pointed out that student loan debt in the USA now outstrips credit card debt, "with millions of vulnerable people mis-sold poor quality, inappropriate qualifications using federal money".
She said the proposed expansion of profitmaking institutions by the UK government "seems to be like a runaway train with ministers unable or unwilling to stop the same happening here".
Hunt added, "As the experience of Australia and the USA show, allowing the expansion of for-profit providers will only undermine the hard-won reputation we have built. In the interests of students, parents and our universities, I urge the government to pause and reconsider their privatisation programme before it is too late.”