Guest blogpost by G. R. Evans
Who ‘represents’ providers of UK higher education?
Alex Proudfoot, the CEO of an organization called Independent Higher Education, was invited as a witness to the Committee evaluating the Higher Education and Research Bill. His views were taken seriously and were quoted in prepared statements by the Minister during the discussion. So who exactly does Alex Proudfoot represent? Is Independent Higher Education the voice of the ‘alternative providers’? The evidence suggests there are reasons for doubt, not least of which is that it appears to have no significant membership among the 117 alternative providers listed on the HEFCE Register.
The Higher Education and Research Act is intended to create a single system of higher education provision in England. In the evidence session held at the Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill on 6 September, witnesses appeared on behalf of three ‘interest groups’ representing existing providers, Universities UK, GuildHE and Million Plus. In addition, there was Alex Proudfoot its CEO and Paul Kirkham its Vice-Chair, representing a newcomer called ‘Independent Higher Education’.
The other witnesses represent well-established interest groups. Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) is the Vice-Chancellors’ longstanding membership organisation. The Vice-Chancellors elect a 24-person Board and a President from among themselves. UUK does not exclude alternative providers which have university title. For example, Regent’s University may be found there. GuildHE, founded in the 1970s as the Standing Conference of Principals, now has about three dozen full and associate members, some now with university title. Million Plus describes itself as the ‘association for modern universities’. It lists about 20 members, all post-1992 universities, none of them alternative providers.
A first attempt to create an interest group for alternative providers was led by Aldwyn Cooper, Vice-Chancellor of Regent’s University in January 2015, initially representing eight providers with degree-awarding powers or university title. This took the loose title of the Independent Universities Group, but has encountered difficulties in defining a common cause. IfS did not join it and it became uncomfortable about including the University of Law after that was taken over by Global University Systems. It was not invited to give evidence to the Committee in September 2016.
Independent Higher Education, which was invited, came into being with this title only in June 2016. It was formerly known as ‘Study UK’, and had 130 members most of whom were not providers of higher education. The Independent HE website provides a scrolling list of logos of ‘selected’ members of its new self, including Navitas, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, MetfilmSchool, Kaplan, New College of the Humanities, Court Theatre Training Company, City and Guilds of London Art School, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, the University College of Football Business Wembley, Study Group, Point Blank Electronic Music School, SAE Institute. Not all of these are English providers. This is a very mixed bag and quite a small one when set against the 700 alternative providers cited in evidence by Alex Proudfoot himself as a provisional total of current alternative providers.
There is a clear case for the creation of a body or bodies which can speak for alternative providers of higher education, but it is hard to see how Independent Higher Education can as yet claim as it does, to be ‘the UK membership organisation and national representative body for independent providers of higher education, professional training and pathways’. However, it has made a notable fist of getting the ear of Government.
Lobbying against the present system of ‘validation’: what evidence should be relied on?
Alex Proudfoot, CEO of Independent Higher Education, was among the invited witnesses to the Committee on the Bill on 6 September 2016. In reply to questioning he said:
Briefly, I think the OFS needs to have a power reserved in order to validate degrees because, unfortunately, the current foundation system in the UK is so broken.
He claimed that the existing holders of degree awarding powers were acting anti-competitively, that they charged too much for validating the degrees of other providers, and were secretive. Alternative provider witnesses invited to give evidence to the Committee and supporting these claims had various links with this new organisation. Paul Kirkham, chief executive of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance is Vice-chair of Independent Higher Education. Condé Nast, running a College of Fashion and Design with fees of £27,000 a year, is a member, and sent two witnesses. Philip Wilson, invited as CEO of the University College of Football Management is also Chair of Independent Higher Education. (He admitted in evidence that ‘ we as an institution have to be very careful of market saturation’. )
They all attacked the present system of validation in closely similar terms.
Pam Tatlow of Million Plus, representing a body of publicly-funded universities, pointed out that:
More than 100 institutions can validate throughout England. If you cannot be validated as an independent provider by one of those, what is the matter with what you are delivering?
Gordon Marsden MP picked up this point later, when the Committee was considering amendments in detail:
It was said in the evidence sessions, and has been said outside this place—and I have some sympathy with the view—that if, given the multitude of choices for validation from existing higher education institutions, those new providers cannot get anyone to validate them, they must be in a bad way.
Indications in the Bill that lobbying has been effective
The call for a ‘central service’ to assist applicants for validation arrangements appeared in what was then Study UK’s Manifesto in 2015, written by Alex Proudfoot. That sought a National Validating Authority’ with ‘the power to accredit new academic and technical degrees and other higher-level provision’. Witnesses in Independent Higher Education’s ‘cluster’ added their voices in support of this idea before the Committee in September 2016.
The Bill addresses this request in s.46 through the concept of ‘commissioning’ of potential ‘validators’ by OfS to enter into arrangements with other providers. The witnesses before the Committee with links to Independent Higher Education complained that the process was too slow if current holders of degree awarding powers (DAP) were left free to choose whether to validate, that new ‘innovative’ courses were being blocked, that the existing holders of DAP were behaving in an anti-competitive manner, charging too much and behaving secretively. All these points could also be addressed through regulations framed under the Bill’s ‘commissioning’ provisions if OfS became the national validating authority they lobbied for.
The QAA-Open University- Independent Higher Education ‘pilot’
The Open University made a submission to the Committee on the Higher Education and Research Bill in August 2016. It objected to clause 47 (Validation by the OfS) as ‘unnecessary’:
The OfS will not have any awards itself and as such cannot enter into a validation arrangement itself.
It set out in an Annex an account of its own ‘over 20 years’ of validation experience, nationally and internationally, having taken on the Council for National Academic Awards role in 1992’, apparently suggesting that the best candidate to become a national validating authority might be itself.
It included details of a proposed ‘pilot project between the OU, the QAA and Independent Higher Education’, reflecting several of the key stated objectives laid before the Committee in considering the Bill. These, conflating suggestion with complaint, included the:
creation of a centralised validation body which, by operating in a more transparent and consistent way, would provide a validation approach which promotes these values and in particular removes the barriers preventing alternative providers from entering the sector.
The link with Independent Higher Education lobbying on this point was frank:
The starting point has been to consider the key aspects of current validation practice that have been identified by Independent Higher Education as barriers to success for alternative providers. The pilot project is developing a model of validation partnership which would remove those barriers.
This assertion nevertheless reads oddly against wording by the Open University which seems less focussed on the alternative providers:
The pilot’s participants include further education colleges seeking validation as well as alternative providers – the aim being to make sure the model could operate across higher education and also benefit other providers such as further education colleges
On 8 September 2016, after the witnesses linked to Independent Higher Education had given their evidence to the Committee on 6 September and it had been published by Hansard on 7 September, the ‘pilot’ was publicly announced. Alex Proudfoot published a Blog on the Independent Higher Education website describing it as ‘our pilot’ and quoting some of the evidence to the Committee on 6 September given by witnesses linked to Independent Higher Education. Times Higher Education ran the story on the same day, suggesting that the Open University was interested in taking on the role of ‘validator of last resort’ envisaged in the Bill. The Open University published its own announcement of a pilot project ‘partnering’ with the QAA and Independent Higher Education’:
to create an exemplar validation model which could operate right across the sector, to include FE colleges and alternative providers. The pilot scheme aims to further increase efficiency, removing barriers to institutions seeking validation whilst upholding the quality and standards essential for a sustainable and reliable validation service.
From the Open University’s point of view, this launch took place on the occasion of the announcement of OU validation arrangements with five new providers, none of them alternative providers. There was no mention of the Association of Colleges or of the organisations which represents FE colleges offering HE (the 157 Group and the Mixed Economy Group). The QAA seemed to have made no corresponding announcement though it was suggested that its part would simply consist in allowing the sharing of its monitoring review documents and other materials created in the course of its regular Review of Alternative Providers. The Open University put it thus in its written evidence to the Committee:
greater harmonisation of documentation between validating universities and greater alignment between the documentary requirements of validating universities and QAA Higher Education Review (HER) and HER for Alternative Providers.
Gordon Marsden commented on 13 September that this pilot scheme appeared to remove any objection that it was being made difficult for new providers to obtain validation from holders of degree-awarding powers:
Only this week the Open University put itself forward, as the Minister will be well aware, as a potential validator of many new institutions and, indeed, some of the FE institutions that seek degree status. So let us have no more of the straw man—the argument that those poor small new institutions cannot be validated because there is a vested interest out there blocking them. If there was such a situation, it is rapidly being addressed, and what the Minister is arguing for is not needed.
The standing of the QAA – or any successor ‘quality body’ to be established under the new legislation – to participate in the design of a new validation system is accepted. In a reply in Committee on 13 September the Minister insisted that ‘no higher education provider will be given DAPs’ without ‘due diligence around quality assurance’; ‘this responsibility is expected to be carried out by the designated independent quality body’.
The standing of Independent Higher Education to participate in such a pilot seems not to have been questioned.
The DfE and the Minister need to ensure that a full review of the number and types of alternative higher education providers is now carried out. It is important that this constituency of providers and its various needs and wishes – already numbering far more than any of the categories identified by HEFCE – should be properly understood. The authority of Independent Higher Education to speak as their ‘representative’ should be questioned. As things stand a tail is wagging the dog of a number of provisions in the proposed new legislation and the prominence of one very young and small organisation seems disproportionate.