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Private providers pose risk for UK HE, report warns

UK universities risk damaging their reputation for delivering world class education by partnering with private providers, a new report has warned.

Cuts in state funding to higher education have led British universities to consider links with global “edubusinesses”, many of which run for profit, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Its report, Education Not for Sale, sets out the ongoing “marketization” of higher education in recent years, encouraged by the coalition government.

It points out that state subsidised loans for students on private HE courses have doubled and that private providers are now VAT-exempt. Universities minister David Willetts has also introduced measures to allow easier granting of degree awarding powers and the right to use the title ‘university’.

The TUC blames such moves for the “over-recruitment” of students by private providers, resulting in an £80 million overspend in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) budget.

And its report warns that while universities should have a global outlook,  links with edubusiness should be closely monitored.

“Universities run clear risks in engaging in these partnerships,” it says. “Given the very poor track record in the US of the private partners, universities must be able to monitor recruitment techniques and course quality in both virtual and ‘bricks-and-mortar’ settings, as well as maintaining stringency in validation.

“The global attractiveness of British higher education rests on its reputation for quality; it must not allow partnerships with private providers with very poor track records damage that reputation.”

The report outlines the partnerships that private providers, such as Kaplan and Laureate, have formed with a number of universities providing foundation and post-graduate courses aimed at foreign students.

Kaplan, owned by US company Apollo, has established Kaplan International Colleges in partnership with several UK universities and “seeks further expansion”, the report said.

It also highlights the aspiration to penetrate the UK HE market of Laureate, an online provider that has come under scrutiny in the US for recruitment and quality issues.

Laureate International Universities network includes more than 65 accredited campus-based and online universities with more than 750,000 students in 29 countries in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

In the UK, Laureate provides the marketing, programme design, infrastructure and administrative support for Liverpool University’s online postgraduate courses. In 2012 it entered a similar partnership with the University of Roehampton, which offers three on-line postgraduate degrees in business.