By Michelle Coull

The importance of higher education has never been more fiercely debated.

This time it’s not the average cost of a bachelor’s degree which is causing consternation, but the issue of private universities.

The government’s determination to allow private universities to enter the marketplace has faced tough opposition from the House of Lords and traditional universities which are concerned about how a for profit university will be regulated.

Universities minister Jo Johnson has accused the sector of trying to stifle competition. His reforms, contained in the Higher Education and Research Bill, is currently making its way through parliament.

He claims the benefits of higher education in the private sector would be that universities could no longer “act like bouncers” deciding who is allowed into the club – and who is not. The private sector would offer more accessible education.

The Bill proposes a combined system for regulating traditional universities and so-called "alternative providers", with the aim of encouraging a wider market for students.

There are more than 700 alternative providers, with almost 300,000 students - including for-profit colleges offering below degree-level courses, overseas-based colleges as well as well-regarded private institutions providing their own degree-level courses.

More than 120 of these providers run courses eligible for student finance, with the cost of tuition fee loans and maintenance loans to this sector rising from £94m to £382m between 2010-11 and 2014-15.

The Bill proposes a new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS) which could register and de-register higher education institutions, and which would exist to encourage competition between English providers.

But critics are not happy about the level of power this body would hold. And experts in the USA have urged the UK not to follow the American model, allowing for profit universities to spring up at will.

“This model might make sense if our goal was to produce cars, clothing, or some other commodity more efficiently.

“But a university education doesn’t fit into this paradigm. It isn’t just a commodity,” writes AJ Angulo, author of Diploma Mills: How For-Profit Colleges Stiffed Students, Taxpayers and the American Dream.

Critics point to the training sector as an example of what lowering regulation can do. John Frank Training, for example, recently went into liquidation. This left students who took out loans in order to gain new skills, paying for courses they never got to complete.

The University of Buckingham, the first UK private university which opened in 1976, has said it welcomes the diversity and competition the new legislation would bring.

Students at private universities are said to appreciate the flexibility and student-centred approach. University life can be tailored to each student, from the one-to-one tutorials to the career guidance. This makes it stand out against larger traditional universities.

But how are private universities funded?

They don't receive state support, so many people would assume that private universities in the UK are more expensive. But that is not always the case. The University of Buckingham offers a two-year degree costing just £22,500 - saving around £4,500 on an average three-year degree at a state institution.

But private institutions of higher education are not subject to the same fee cap as their state-funded counterparts - so they can be costly. Students should weigh up the pros and cons and do their research.

The Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design launched a two-year BA in fashion communication in 2016, which costs £27,000 per year, and is accredited by the University of Buckingham.

The upcoming Dyson Institute of Technology will pay students to work alongside Dyson’s engineers. Its degrees will be accredited by the University of Warwick.

But critics fear these will not be typical examples of private providers. Their concerns are that opening the door to more private providers won’t help to solve the country’s skill shortage in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. They argue that alternative providers tend to offer business studies.

The House of Lords has voted for an amendment, calling for a stronger definition of what a university is – meaning that not just any provider can win the university title.

The Bill is moving forward, returning to the House of Commons after the Lords reporting stage, on March 6 to discuss amendments.


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