A few years ago I took over supervision of a PhD student from the Middle East who had been studying for two years at a private college in England. She had transferred following a particularly unpleasant experience. One day, she had phoned her college to speak to her supervisor to discuss her plans to submit her PhD thesis. The call was answered by a salesman telling her the place was now a carpet warehouse.
Unknown to her, the college had closed and the staff had disappeared. Her studies were abruptly terminated, and her hopes of earning the PhD disappeared with the college. Her only option was to re-register somewhere else and 'start over'. Thankfully, after several years further hard work, she gained her PhD last autumn.
This (unnamed) college demonstrates the 'dark side' of the private sector in higher education. Things can go wrong, and when they do this can be very bad - particularly for the students.
This is not to say that the private sector in higher education is all like this. It can be done well, and a private alternative to publicly funded universities and colleges adds a great deal to the sector. As in the US and many other countries, private colleges can enrich the student and academic experience for all, giving diversity and real alternatives.
Not all private HE colleges and universities are for-profit institutions. Although AC Grayling's New College for the Humanities may grab headlines with its £18,000 per year fees and public school predominance, there are also long established and well-respected not-for-profit places such as the University of Buckingham and Regent's College in London.
These are all part of the free market, where there are the survivors who succeed, and there are the dinosaurs which become extinct. The same is true now also in the public sector, which is already a long way down the road to free market finance. While Oxford and Cambridge could (and perhaps should) cut the 'matron strings' of public money, fears abound of public universities on the brink of bankruptcy.
But in the world of private colleges this happens sooner rather than later.
The question then becomes, which private colleges can be said to be stable and likely to succeed, and which are not? There is an equivalent, perhaps, in the retail sector. That is the 'Pop-Up shop', which comes into town, sells its wares for a limited time, and then disappears. It may be fair to say that some of the new and small private colleges today may be like this: 'pop up colleges', which for various reasons are in place for a short time only.
Of course, they might not intend to be so temporary - very few colleges will start up with the intention of closing soon after. But the question is what is to stop this happening, and how can the student know for sure?
The past year has seen a major change to the state's regulation of private (or 'independent') HE colleges - to meet the coalition government's desire to be seen to be 'managing migration'.
New government regulations were introduced in March 2011 for the oversight of colleges' sponsorship of tier 4 international students. In recent months there have been widespread inspections of private colleges by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), under a scheme titled the Review for Educational Oversight. All private colleges will require a decision of confidence from the QAA in order to have 'highly trusted sponsor' status with the UK Borders Agency. Without HTS status, colleges won't be able to recruit international students.
The QAA's criteria for making such a judgement of confidence are: (i) 'management of responsibilities for academic standards', (ii) 'management and enhancement of the quality of learning opportunities', and (iii) 'whether reliance can or cannot be placed on the accuracy and/or completeness of public information' provided by the college.
This specifically applies to colleges intending to recruit overseas students. But as international students are vital to the finances of most private colleges, the new scheme is in effect regulating the whole sector. The cost of not achieving a QAA evaluation of confidence is likely to be immense - it will mean no international students, and so the loss of a significant funding stream.
It is not clear if the QAA EO scheme will help prevent the pop-up colleges. It will most likely remove a number of the more dubious colleges, along with the bogus colleges that have existed for years as agencies for backdoor migrant workers.
What is missed by the QAA, though, is the question of viability of the colleges - not only of financial viability, but other factors such as overall management and corporate governance. Without each of these in place, the chances of a college's survival are not strong.
And in the end, it will be the students studying at these colleges who will suffer from such failure.
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