The Future of Higher Education

Supplementary written evidence submitted by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education

The impact of recent changes to the student visa system on the Government's plans for private higher education as set out in the White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, June 2011

In reply to Katy Clark, MP on 24 May 2011, I supported the notion of a "level playing field" for higher education quality assurance regardless of the ownership status of particular institutions. I said, on behalf of BAC, that

"we hope that whatever the common level playing field for quality assurance is,

it should be inclusive. It should not damage the access that students have, through private colleges, to higher education of all sorts, in a range of fields."

(Question 609)

I should like to amplify this comment in the light of more recent developments.

In their Foreword to the Higher Education White Paper Students at the Heart of the System, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Universities and Science argued that

"Responding to student demand also means enabling a greater diversity of provision. We expect this to mean more higher education in further education colleges, more variety in modes of learning and wholly new providers delivering innovative forms of higher education". (Cm 8122 p. 3)

The White Paper recognises and celebrates diversity of provision:

"Over 1,600 bodies, public and private, at home and overseas, offer some form of UK higher education provision, around 250 of which are further education colleges." (Cm 8122 p. 46)

Apart from this reference, the Paper is curiously silent on the issue of UK-domiciled private higher education institutions. Yet BAC estimates that these teach at least 36,000 students on degree courses and a further 11,000 on UK University-validated non-degree courses. [1] 70 of the 86 Listed Bodies are BAC-accredited private institutions whilst a further 52 offer substantial elements of UK university-validated provision.

The Paper then goes on to argue that:

"Many private providers run successful higher education courses in England without wanting to enter the English higher education sector and will probably go on doing so. As with other providers, the regulatory regime will depend on what alternative providers wish to access. If they wish to hold degree-awarding powers they will have to sign up to a quality assurance regime." (Cm 8122 p. 73)

Whilst this may continue to be true for those recruiting UK and EU-domiciled students, it fails to recognise the mandatory nature of the new arrangements for "Educational Oversight" which the Home Office has imposed on Tier 4 Student Visa Sponsors with effect from 4 July 2011.

Private institutions have undergone a long period of uncertainty regarding their ability to recruit international students. In particular the following three points are of concern following the most recent raft of changes:

· Students at private institutions will have no work rights, compared to their peers at public institutions (including those on the same course, such as university-registered degree students) who can work part time. This is seen as particularly inequitable and potentially open to legal challenge.

· Private institutions now have to apply for a new system of Educational Oversight, incurring significant additional costs, despite having already undergone demanding accreditation processes; this system is not yet fully in place and institutions are not yet able to apply to the relevant bodies.

· In the interim, private institutions have had the number of offers they can make to international students frozen, leading for most to a significant real-terms cut in number of enrolments. For many institutions, some of which were experiencing rapid growth, this represents a significant shortfall in revenue which may threaten the viability of their business.

Taken together, these changes are likely to cause a significant number of reputable, high-quality educational institutions to close because of the negative effect on international student recruitment. The UK education sector is highly interlinked and interdependent; any negative publicity arising from the closure of private institutions will damage the UK brand and is likely to impact significantly on other institutions by steering international students towards other countries which are perceived as a safer bet. The rules surrounding the student immigration route have become extremely complex over the last few years and there is already considerable confusion and some wariness amongst international students.

In light of these difficulties, BAC has proposed the following measures to alleviate some of the potential damage to the education sector:

· The expansion of the 11-month extended student visitor visa to include academic and vocational courses. This would mitigate some of the damage to the private sector and save some institutions from closure, without adding to net migration figures; this concession has already been provided for the English language sector.

· Equality in work entitlements for students registered with a UK university, but studying at a partner college; the disparity between working rights for international students is unfair and unnecessary in all cases, but this would go some way to rectifying the problem for a proportion of these students.

· That the newly designated Educational Oversight Bodies make full use of existing and proven inspection procedures and monitoring strategies in developing the new quality assurance system for the private sector, so that it is fair and fit for purpose.

The Select Committee is asked to consider the consequences of these differences in treatment between public and private sector institutions (which appear to have had the tacit support of the Education Ministries) for the principle of greater diversity of provision envisioned by the Higher Education White Paper and the access that students have, through private colleges, to higher education of all sorts, in a range of fields.

Professor Steve Bristow

Senior Advisor (Quality Assurance and Governance)

July 2011

[1] Briefing note for Select Committee prior to Oral Evidence, May 2011

Prepared 13th July 2011