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United Kingdom: Is it diversification or privatization?

Ten small specialist colleges in England are going through the final step for receiving their university title. This follows a series of reforms to “diversify” British higher education landscape, including one in 2012 that lowered the minimum number of students necessary to obtain university title from 4 000 to 1 000 (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, June 2012), and the most recent decision of the country’s Universities and Science Minister to advise the Privy Council that ten more institutions have met the criteria to be awarded the title of university. If successful, this will be the biggest creation of universities in England since 1992.

For long-established colleges that are specialised in one or few disciplines, such as law, agriculture and the arts, the award of a university status has brought them up to a level playing field with the other 100 English universities for attracting undergraduate students. Many of these colleges have been offering undergraduate degrees. However, they have often been denied a university title on the ground that they have no research, scholarship and community engagement in their profile. Now, sailing along the wind of diversification and a heightened emphasis on employability of graduates, these teaching-only private institutions have found their niche in the British higher education system. Moreover, there is a market prepared for them as the British government has recently announced that undergraduates in the country can take publicly-backed loans, up to a maximum of GBP 6 000-a-year, to study at private universities.

While welcomed by small colleges that are about to be upgraded to universities, the influx of teaching-only institutions has created concerns over the privatization of British higher education and the deterioration of the quality of universities. Such fear is not unfounded, especially when these new universities start to introduce 2-year bachelor’s degree programmes with an annual tuition fee of GBP 9 000, the maximum fee level allowed. Worse still, there are worries about the acquisition of such small universities by private funds such as the Montagu Private Equity’s acquisition of the recently upgraded University of Law.  Before the acquisition, the University of Law (or College of Law) has been a “private educational charity”. After the acquisition, it will become the first “private for-profit university” in the UK.

Department for Business Innovation and Skills

The College of Law