Private providers have changed the higher education landscape in recent decades as the government strives to open up 'education for all.' Some of these alternative providers featured in this week's BBC Panorama episode on Monday 13th November, where reporter Richard Watson exposed the shady practices of education agents populating such places with students. Many of these students are no more suited to academic life than most of us are to being professional footballers. The knock-on effect of this is that it has created an industry of essay mills and providers of fake certification, and built up a mountain of debt that somebody will have to pay off sooner or later. The burden on the taxpayer and individual students has risen to hundreds of millions of pounds as a consequence of how easy it is for private providers to exploit loopholes in the student loans' system.
Despite this, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, appears determined to make it easier for private providers to exist in an increasingly market-driven higher educational environment. This appears to be shaped by an ever rising desire to turn students into consumers, and to have universities characterised by competitiveness and ease of access rather than critical thought and research. It could also be seen as a way of directing taxpayers' money away from traditional universities and into the hands of private investors and organisations run purely for the profits of shareholders.
Even in this past few months we have seen the announcement of Gary Neville and Manchester United's legendary 'class of 92' planning to open a university academy, UA'92. This has caused some controversy in academic circles, with questions asked about how the Department of Education gave such easy licence to this venture being labelled a university, before it has even come into existence. Is there a danger that this is going to open the floodgates to similar ventures? Are we looking at a whole new ball game in higher education, where celebrity colleges compete with traditional institutions and private, for-profit providers on an increasingly competitive playing field? Are we at the dawn of Boris Johnson's School of International Relations and Diplomacy, or the Roland Duchâtelet College of Customer Relations? Alternatively, are we actually on the verge of exciting changes within higher education?
Many academics, and probably Unions too, will argue that private ventures being proferred with the title of 'university' muddies the waters of what the word traditionally means. This does not mean that there is no place for private institutions. Some of these new universities do advocate traditional higher educational values, and have absolutely no association with manipulation of qualifications, loopholes and loans. Generally though, these are specialist colleges that have been created by academics or experts in a particular field such as Business or Law. In the case of Manchester United's former footballers, the stated aims include linking courses to employment and benefitting the local area.
Perhaps, if this new institution has a soldily academic focus, then it could make a major contribution to Salford, Manchester and a region that was once seen as "the workshop of the world." However, the form of private providers to date has too many echoes of the England senior football team's recent performances in World and European championships. Private providers promise a great deal in advance, but when it comes to the eventual delivery they get sucked into practices that might help with short-term profits but do nothing for students or the reputation of British education in the long term.
Often, talk of widening participation is code for what is colloquially known in the industry as 'putting bums on seats.' Yet, whether we agree with it or not, it seems that the nature of higher education is changing. New ventures are likely to usurp some more traditional institutions in the coming decade, much as promotion and relegation from the non league has changed the face of lower division football in Britain. The new ball game in higher education is not something that's coming next season or the one after. It has already kicked off, and it's up to those of us who care about higher education's role in society to make sure it also plays by rules that have made our universities world leaders within the academic domain.The issue we then have to consider is how these organisations are held to account, and who is responsible for that.
Right now, there appears to be nobody guarding against abuse and some very unscrupulous colleges have lived through a Premier League era in education where a select few individuals have got very rich on account of being able to exploit a Student Loans system shaped by a genuine ambition to make education available for all. Perhaps therein lies the key to returning education to its grassroots values. Education should indeed be available to all, except for one segment of society, those who seek to profit from it - those who are motivated by the greed of shareholders rather than the greater good of students.
Paul Breen is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster, whose latest academic book publication Developing Educators for the Digital Age is due for release in January 2018.