Thursday, 11 December 2014

An Alternative point of view

The National Audit Office report on Financial support for students at alternative higher education providers has generated a lot of media coverage in the past couple of weeks – both from industry and social media. Here’s links to the Guardian’s coverage; the BBC and the Times Higher; and also a brief piece by Emily Lupton on Wonkhe. The coverage ranges from £5m mis-spending to a whopping £50m potential risk in your super soar-away Guardian. So what’s really going on?

First up, what are alternative providers? An alternative provider is any college which offers higher education, but is not part of the ‘normal’ state-funded, QAA-regulated, HESA-data-submitting established universities. So the term includes established and well-recognised institutions such as the University of Buckingham or BPP University (relatively new name but a long, long heritage) as well as lots of smaller colleges, some of which have sprung up in the last few years. (I should add for clarity that there are no adverse comments about either Buckingham or BPP in the NAO report.) I blogged a while ago about which institutions use UCAS, and a lot of the entrants and exits from that marketplace are alternative providers.

Alternative providers aren’t all for-profit – the term covers colleges run as charitable trusts too. Courses lead to awards made either through powers that they have gained themselves through the recent more open procedures run by BIS; made by national awarding bodies; or lead to awards validated by universities, or franchised from universities.

The story arises from the opening up of access to Student Loans Company (SLC) funding for students at alternative providers – up to £6k fees, and also for living costs. And this is what the NAO was investigating.

There were four main findings:

“EU students at some alternative providers have claimed or attempted to claim student support they were not entitled to” – this is the £5.4 million mis-spending reported by the media. And 83% of the wrongful claims came from student at just 16 alternative providers.

“Dropout rates at 9 alternative providers were higher than 20% in 2012/13” and “20% of Higher National students recruited by alternative providers and claiming student support may not have been registered with the qualification awarding body in 2012/13”. The NAO takes this as evidence that some students aren’t really motivated to learn – that is, they may be registering as students only to access loans.

“Between 2012 and 2014, BIS suspended payments to 7 providers and their students owing to concerns that providers had enrolled students onto unapproved courses” and “a lack of clarity has existed within BIS and its partner organisations about which courses were approved for student support.” This points to procedures designed (or at least operated) by BIS and the SLC which didn’t check eligibility before lending money.

“In 3 cases, BIS suspended payments to providers or their students where it had concerns that the providers had supplied incorrect information about student attendance.” The point being that it was the SLC making payments, but without the powers necessary to assure itself of the correctness of the payments.

Does this mean that alternative providers are a Bad Thing? That was certainly the unspoken view behind a lot of the Twittersphere commentary. I don’t think that it does.

It does mean that some of the providers audited almost certainly are doing bad things, and it almost certainly means that some of the people who signed up for courses at some alternative providers were doing it for the wrong reason. But a very few students also enrol at ‘normal’ providers for the wrong reason. And they’re often caught, like these ones, and dealt with. (A quick note about the 83% at 16 providers which the NAO cited: the alternative providers market is very skewed, with a few very large providers and many very small indeed. 83% of students at alternative providers, selected on any basis at all, are mathematically almost certain to come from a small number of providers. Just saying.)

But I do think that there is a problem here, and it’s the failure of regulation which this represents. There wasn’t until September 2014 a single comprehensive list of courses at alternative providers which were approved for access to SLC funds - this makes checking very difficult. There weren’t systems which shared information at the right time between bodies to make it possible to spot and stop problems. There wasn’t the right authority to oversee new providers in a timely fashion. These are all foreseeable problems, the sort of problems which universities have been dealing with for years and which sector groups – Universities UK, the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA), the Academic Registrars’ Council (ARC) – are well placed to advise upon.

The reasons for this?  Too little time spent on thinking things through; a government in a hurry; a coalition government, meaning that plans had to be compromised; and a civil service which was distracted by pressure to find savings. And underlying this the great truth that higher education is a long-term process, with outcomes only known sometime after the event. The same is true for higher education policy – act in haste, repent at leisure.

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