The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple

‘Alternative’ they may be, but ‘providers’ …?

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By Paul Temple

Not that many SRHE members – I’m guessing here – will have called in on the London College of Business Sciences in Dock Road, E14. If you were planning a visit, you’d need to be sure that you hadn’t confused it with the London College of Business Management. Other traps for the unwary could be the London College of International Business Studies, not to mention the London College of Business Management and IT. Or indeed any one of a long list of for-profit colleges with the words ‘London’, ‘College’ and ‘Business’ in the title. The QAA has the thankless (and it seems to me pointless) task of inspecting these places. The London College of Business Sciences, to make a random choice, was established in 2010 and has changed ownership every year since then. It’s not then particularly surprising that the QAA in a report this year found that ‘The College’s…management of academic standards…is not fully effective’.

For example, although the College was supposed to have an Academic Board and a Board of Examiners, there was no ‘evidence that the Board [of Examiners] had ever met’ and ‘the College could not provide any minutes of meetings of the [Academic] Board’. (So they couldn’t even be bothered to concoct some minutes of fictional meetings.) Welcome to the wonderful world of David Willetts’ ‘alternative providers’.

What is particularly surprising about the slow-motion car crash that is the English higher education for-profit sector is that we have a worked example from America to guide us. Hardly a week goes by without some new aspect of the scandal of US for-profit colleges emerging. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in January 2014 that the State Attorneys in 13 US states had come together to investigate for-profits’ ‘student-recruitment practices, employment statistics for the colleges’ graduates, graduate certification and licensing results, and student-lending activities.’ The state lawyers had grounds for concern about all of these. Then in March 2014 the Federal Department of Education announced new regulations to prevent the worst-performing private colleges having access to government funds, noting that while students at for-profit colleges represented 13% of all US higher education students, they accounted for about half of all student loan defaults. This led in short order to the collapse of the large for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain, once its Federal funding was cut. These actions followed a strongly critical 2012 report by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, whose chair, Senator Harkin, told The New York Times (29 July 2012) that his Committee’s report had produced ‘overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition [fees], aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation’.

In both the US and here, for-profit growth is directly related to ready access to public money – from an economics point of view, these are rent-seeking organisations rather than risk-taking, entrepreneurial ones. THE reporter John Morgan has done an outstanding job in cataloguing the out-of-control character of public funding of for-profit colleges: it can hardly be anything else, given the huge and changing number of very small colleges – the London College of Business Sciences had all of 26 students when the QAA called. In his story in THE on 19 June this year, Morgan reminds us that next year £1 billion – one billion! – of public money will be spent on loans and grants to students at places like the London College of Business Sciences. By way of comparison, the total HEFCE grant for 2014/15 will be £3.8 billion.

I struggle to understand the politics of this. An ideological preference for private-sector providers is one thing, but a preference for a system which is heading fast in a direction which the Americans have helpfully signposted ‘disaster area’ seems bonkers.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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