UK: Private higher education needs legal framework

Growth of private higher education in the UK will not necessarily be at the expense of the public sector, a report published by a leading think tank says. The report, from the Higher Education Policy Institute, calls for new legislation to regulate the growth.

Private Providers in UK Higher Education: Some policy options, by Professor Robin Middlehurst and John Fielden, concludes that non-state higher education is a "small but significant" and growing feature of the UK system, with some 670 private providers.

But the Higher Education Policy Unit study says that most are very small, and almost all focus on a limited number of professional disciplines.

The growth of private higher education in the UK is part of a global trend. Throughout the world, the number of students in private institutions is growing faster than in publicly-owned and funded ones. Behind the growth is the financial reality that governments simply cannot afford to pay for the higher education that is required and the private sector is expanding to meet the demand.

Middlehurst and Fielden conclude that government policies, which seek to diversify the range of higher education providers, partly to increase price competition and partly to absorb demand that will not otherwise be met, mean that private higher education is set to grow further. But this growth will not necessarily be at the expense of public higher education.

They urge the creation of a rigorous regulatory system, to encourage private providers that offer high quality and keep out those that do not. Better and more equitable regulation will be needed if private institutions are to play their part in meeting the national need.

They believe that the regulatory regime lacks coherence, and that a comprehensive Private Higher Education Act should be drafted by the coalition government.

The resulting new regulatory framework for the private higher education sector would ensure or enable:

* Consumer protection over services offered by UK and foreign providers in the UK.
* Protection of the UK's higher education reputation and brand for international students in private colleges.
* A contribution by the private sector to ensuring access for UK students to higher education.
* An increased choice of quality-assured provision for UK, EU and international students and a broader range of pathways from A level to professional or postgraduate level would also be available from some private providers.
* The addition of new funding and new ideas to the system.

The report recommends that the approach to regulating public and private institutions should be 'equitable', and wherever possible the playing field should be level - for example the accreditation and quality assurance regimes and evaluation criteria should be the same.

The authors say that existing campuses of foreign universities and any foreign institution wishing to establish itself should be required to register and obtain a license to operate under the same accreditation and review processes as domestic providers if they plan to enrol UK or EU citizens.

The report says that the private sector in the UK differs significantly from that in the US, since a large proportion of the providers focus on the international rather than the domestic student market and many have forms of partnership with traditional institutions.

"However this picture may change as a consequence of new policy directions in England and likely constraints on access for domestic students to traditional higher education institutions."

Some private providers have moved on from international recruitment to market themselves to UK and EU students.

The report predicts that probable policy changes in England will lead private and for-profit providers in the UK to become 'demand absorbing' over the next five years.

"This alone is unlikely significantly to widen choice because wide choice already exists in access routes, accessibility of provision and range of programmes. The likely area for widening choice is in flexibility of study times and approaches."

* Private Providers in UK Higher Education: Some policy options, by Robin Middlehurst and John Fielden, is available on the HEPI website.