Jordan Kenny

Consultant

The higher education sector (HE) is in (another) state of flux and transition.

Those of us who work in the sector seem to have been saying that a lot for a good few years now. From the Browne Review and fee increase of the coalition years, to the REF, TEF and widening access debates of today, it has been a tumultuous few years in HE.

However, one of the sector’s key debates that continues to rumble on is “what role should/could independent and private providers play in the sector?”

Whilst it is a debate that is part of the HE policy furniture, it is one that had been lost in the shuffle recently. That was, however, until last November’s green paper, Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice. In it, Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, proposed a clearer and faster route for private providers to award their own degrees and attain university status. David Cameron is now set to reinforce the rhetoric. The PM says making it easier for private institutions to become universities will aid social mobility and improve widening access across higher education. The policy announcement will be a fundamental part of the Queen’s Speech later this year.

Of course, the issue of private and independent providers within the HE doesn’t come without controversy. For those that oppose it, the argument is education is right not a privilege and shouldn’t be seen as a commodity that can be bought and sold. But is this the reality? Are private providers really the preserve of the elite, or can they genuinely affect real social change in higher education? It is an argument that can often lose its clarity in the emotive politics such a topic raises.

The reality, however, can also seem just as unclear as the ideology. For example AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities (NCH) charges twice the £9,000 annual tuition fee that current universities can ask for. For those against the idea of private providers, NCH is often cited as the epitome of what is wrong with the concept. When Grayling set up the college in 2011, 34 of his former colleagues at Birkbeck wrote a letter to the Guardian, saying the institution was “at the vanguard of the coalition’s assault on public education”, whilst respected and internationally acclaimed academic, Terry Egeteron, simply wrote “Grayling’s scheme is odious”.

Yet NCH says it has a place for students no matter what their financial circumstances. The NCH Trust – the charitable arm of the institution – provided financial support, in the form of full or partial means-tested scholarships or bursaries, to well over 30 per cent of students in the College’s 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 cohorts.

However, whilst Grayling’s institution fits the perceived stereotype of the private providers, there are institutions at the other end of the spectrum, such as *GSM London. GSM London prides itself on its diverse student population and actively partakes and promotes higher education to students from non-traditional backgrounds. It also has a much better record in relation to widening access than most traditional, state-funded HEIs. Debi Hayes, Provost, recently wrote a piece for the Guardian HE Networking saying: “Private providers can – and already do – play a huge part in making access to education easier for everyone.” If the current rhetoric is to be believed, GSM London (and others like it) is the kind of institution the PM and Mr Johnson want to fast-track.

Despite the PM and Mr Johnson pushing ahead with the current policy change, there are those in the Conservative Party that want even more dramatic action. Even going as far to say Mr Johnson’s plans have so far been too timid.

These dissenting voices say that if new institutions and organisiations want to break into the sector, Mr Johnson will have to go even further. However, more radical change would no doubt bring even fiercer resistance from the opposition and many within the sector. So, where does all this leave us? In a state of flux and transition, of course.

*GSM London is a client of Communications Management