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Private college boom is already underway

Religion and alternative health top bill of private courses

More than 250 courses at private higher education institutions have become eligible for UK government student loans in the last 12 months, an investigation by Research Fortnight can reveal. Among them, the majority of such courses in smaller institutions are in three areas: theology and religion; alternative health and business and IT.

Some 45 institutions have had courses first approved to access government loans since the coalition formed in May 2010, data from Student Finance England shows. The rush to be recognised for student support reflects an anticipated change in sources of applications: fewer overseas students and more home students.

There are now more than 100 such private colleges, offering roughly 1,000 courses. Degree courses are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and signed off by business secretary, Vince Cable. A rapidly growing band of mostly small and specialised institutions are not yet covered by new “core and margin” controls on student numbers and will be able to recruit freely until they are brought under the proposed single regulatory framework in 2013-14.

Recruitment may even continue until 2014-15, if the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which will eventually regulate the system, is granted the delay it called for in its submission to the government’s consultation on the White Paper, published on 28 October. HEFCE and the Student Loans Company have formed an interim working group to oversee the transition.

David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London is unimpressed with the growth in what he calls “quack” courses. Colquhoun, who has for many years campaigned to stop universities validating alternative health courses says: “The private providers will be happy to provide all sorts of stuff, it doesn’t cost them very much and they make a profit out of it.” He adds: “It’s disastrous for the government because the ridiculous thing about the new fees system is that it costs the taxpayer more to charge £9,000 than it did £3,000. It’s just throwing government money away; training people in [these] subjects.”

University groups contacted by Research Fortnight have generally welcomed what they consider to be increased competition. The director of the University Alliance of business-focused universities, Libby Hackett, however, told Research Fortnight she is concerned that courses from private colleges do not represent real expansion but rather a transfer of provision from more established universities to cheaper providers. “Demand for these courses has yet to be tested and the fear is that this experiment might lead to choice and access being stifled, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds,” she says.

Nine of the private colleges where courses have the green light are large and well known, including the American Intercontinental University, Regent’s College London, the University of Buckingham and BPP University College. BPP now runs nine separate colleges across England, with more than 100 eligible courses; more than half gained approval in the last year.

There are, however, 153 smaller and specialised operations (see diagram via link to PDF below), including several missionary and bible colleges and alterative therapy institutions, such as the Centre for Homeopathic Education (CHE). Courses eligible for government loan support include a foundation degree in mission and ministry at Wesley College, a three-and-a-half- year full time BSc in acupuncture at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine and a three-year BSc in homeopathy at the CHE.

Paul Marshall, director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, says he is concerned that private colleges can expand unfettered, without the constraints faced by other universities. “On one hand you could say that it doesn’t add up to a substantive amount of activity,” he says. “But the point is that we must all operate under the same framework.” This has come about as a result of trying to generate competition and lower fees as quickly as possible, he adds. “The government’s making a risk-based decision that private providers are not going to expand massively and cost the Treasury a huge amount of additional money before those constraints and controls are put in place,” says Marshall.

To promote competition, universities minister David Willetts has already increased the loans that students at private institutions can access to cover fees from £3,300 to £6,000 per year from 2012-13. Students access maintenance loans and grants on the same terms as those at established institutions. Once the single regulatory framework is in place, private providers will compete for students alongside public institutions. Under the new system, those alternative providers that charge less than £7,500 in fees will then be able to bid in the competition for marginal places at the expense of places at established universities. Whether they will retain a ‘core’ recruitment allocation based on how many places they currently have on designated courses remains unclear.

The government is also consulting on removing the barriers that prevent these colleges gaining their own degree-awarding powers—both in terms of size of the student body and breadth of the educational offer—and potentially being able to apply for the ‘university’ title. A HEFCE spokeswoman says issues surrounding how private providers are incorporated into the system will form part of a second consultation on teaching funding and student number controls, to be published in mid-February.