Out-Law News 3 min. read

UK government to 'tighten standards' at alternative higher education providers

Private providers of higher education will face tougher quality standards which will be more closely aligned with the requirements placed on universities receiving direct state funding, the UK government has announced.

Universities minister Greg Clark said that the new requirements would ensure that alternative higher education providers "contribute to, not detract from" the UK's reputation for high quality higher education. They include a 'fit and proper person' test for directors of alternative institutions, and requiring them to apply for annual 're-designation'.

"The government has clearly taken steps to tighten standards, including requiring all alternative providers to apply for re-designation," he said. "But I believe we should go further, including requiring annual designation, establishing a 'fit and proper person' test for directors of alternative providers, retaining student number controls for providers without degree-awarding powers or who offer validated degrees and requiring a minimum standard of English."

"The reputation for quality of our higher education system is of paramount importance, and I expect all alternative providers to contribute to it," he said.

The number of alternative providers of higher education in England has risen substantially since higher education reforms took effect in 2011. Between 2010/11 and 2013/14, the number of students claiming support for courses at alternative providers rose from 7,000 to 53,000, according to the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Examples of alternative providers include private companies and charitable institutions.

The PAC is currently conducting an inquiry into alternative higher education providers, following press reports and concerns about their oversight and funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). In December, public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) published its own report criticising the quality of teaching by some providers; also finding that some students were claiming support that they were not entitled to and had not been registered with the appropriate qualifications body.

All alternative providers were required to re-apply for designation last year through a more robust designation process. They will now be required to do so every year, rather than remaining designated indefinitely, and will undergo a strengthened quality assurance process as part of that designation. This will not apply to the seven providers with degree-awarding powers that have courses designated for support. A 'fit and proper person' test will apply to all directors as a specific requirement of the annual designation process, and changes of directors or their circumstances will need to be notified during the year.

Alternative providers will now be required to submit demographic information for their students, to be published through the Higher Education Statistics Agency; and will be required to register their students with the relevant qualifications body before a claim for student support can be made. The government also plans to introduce a minimum English language requirement for students, and to extend to alternative providers the same 'Key Information Set' requirements governing information which must be provided to students by HEFCE-registered institutions, subject to consultation.

The cap on the number of students alternative providers can admit will be retained, other than for the seven providers with degree-awarding powers. From 2016/17, well-performing providers will be allowed to expand, while student numbers at poorly-performing providers will be reduced. The government, HEFCE, Student Loans Company and other relevant bodies have also set up a 'rapid response investigatory team', which will be able to quickly investigate allegations of abuse of the system.

"The new system by which alternative providers were allowed to be designated and access state funding via student loans was introduced very quickly in the early days of the coalition government, and allowed to grow rapidly with little intervention," said universities expert Nicola Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "The government has now been forced to act and inevitably the regulations now announced look quite severe compared to when the system was introduced with minimal regulation and accountability."

"While some alternative providers will feel aggrieved and over-regulated, it is in the interests of the UK higher education sector as a whole – and for the group of alternative providers which form part of that sector – that the UK's reputation is properly protected. Higher education is one of the things the UK is internationally renowned for and the government should be paying attention to how its regulatory framework impacts on reputation and quality issues," she said.

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