White Paper Stalled: A Hollow Victory

Posted on January 24, 2012

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EasyJet/RyanAir

Last night the Telegraph announced the headline American Backed Private Universities Plan Dropped. This is the news that the government intends to drop plans to deliver legislation on Higher Education probably until 2015.

Many will be declaring this a victory for the student movement and student activism and they are in part right; however this could in many ways be bad news for quality in Universities particularly in a private sector that is going to grow.

Many of the changes that the government intended to bring in did not require legislation to do so. The government can change ministerial guidance or operating procedures to allow these changes to largely take place without a vote.

This reality coupled with a lack of legislation to ensure rigid regulation of the Higher Education sector could mean major dangers to quality. Foreign bidders could already open campuses in the UK and apply to the QAA for University status and the government could direct the Student Loans Company to give loans to allow access to these providers. Whilst the QAA criteria for such an award are strict they are also based on ministerial guidance which could easily be relaxed.

But is the private sector growth a bad thing?

This is largely an ideological point in many debates on the subject. My personal view is that private providers are fine in so far as they comply with stringent criteria that equally apply to the public sector providers. There is no point in outsourcing higher education if it is going to be more expensive and of a poorer quality. This debate should not be about private/public but about common regulation and to high standards.

The government may argue that quality will be driven up competition. It certainly has never been the case in the airline industry for those of us who have flown with RyanAir. It has to be the case that the Higher Education sector must have parity of minimum standards no matter who the provider. Easyjet Universities are simply not an acceptable option.

It is for this reason that legislation is needed to shore up what at the moment is a vulnerable system of regulation that could be watered down on a whim and could decimate one of the UK’s most important industries.

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