The government’s Higher Education and Research Act, passed in 2017, makes it easier for new providers to offer degree courses. There is already evidence in the UK as well as the US that some private providers offer lower-quality, cut-price courses in selected subjects, leading to qualifications that have little value. Teaching at such institutions will not be backed by the strong research offering in our public universities. The UK’s universities have an excellent worldwide reputation: opening the sector to private providers without adequate safeguards risks denting that reputation as well as enabling exploitation of students.
In principle, private providers could serve an important role by offering innovative and valuable new options for students. Sadly, though, history teaches us that the motivation of private organisations is often to make a profit from the high fees that are now available via student loans, without offering an adequate education. Furthermore, university degrees in pseudo-topics (e.g. BSc in homeopathy or aromatherapy) will dent the UK reputation for quality. It is particularly concerning that if it is made easier for such providers to enter the market with a “university” brand, they may put our well-respected public universities at risk of closure. Since the cap on student numbers was removed in 2013, universities have been expanding to take on more students, putting them increasingly in competition with each other. The drop in the number of 18-year olds means that some universities are already financially struggling.
We believe that new providers should meet stringent conditions before they can gain degree-awarding powers, and that the title of “university” should be reserved for those involved in both research and teaching across a range of disciplines. An influx of poorly-regulated private providers into the sector is unlikely to do any good and will almost certainly cause harm to both universities and students.