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House of Lords Hansard
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21 December 2016
Volume 777

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for further regulation of private colleges.

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The Higher Education and Research Bill, which is currently undergoing scrutiny in this House, will introduce a single regulatory system administered by a new body, the Office for Students. This will replace the current fragmented, complex and outdated system and will regulate all higher education providers, including private providers, by the same standards and conditions proportionate to their risk. While the Bill progresses through Parliament, we remain committed to strengthening the current alternative provider system.

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I am delighted to hear the Minister’s reply. Does he not agree that while it is important that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds get the opportunity to pursue higher level courses, when some private colleges enrol them they have problems with basic English and numeracy and they need extra support? When colleges have a progression rate meaning that 50% fail and the pass rate is very low, that does not help and support these young people.

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I note what the noble Lord says but the recruitment practices and academic performance of alternative providers, including available progression rates, are all taken into account by the department and, as he will know, by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. We can and do take action when these fall below acceptable standards. Validation agreements are different for every provider but the degree-awarding body is ultimately responsible for the quality of the learning programme. Under our planned reforms we will give the Office for Students enabling powers to improve validation agreements, including regular monitoring.

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My Lords, we have seen the detrimental effect of low-quality private colleges on the students studying at them and on the reputation of the sector. Given the importance of protecting the United Kingdom’s position as a world leader in higher education, can my noble friend explain what the Government are doing to clamp down on these inferior providers?

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The main point to make, as we take these reforms through and provide a framework for new alternative providers to set up, is that we will look at the importance of quality and not just quantity. New providers and increased competition in the system should improve the capacity and agility of the higher education sector as well as encouraging innovation to transform its ability to respond to economic demands.

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My Lords, the Higher Education and Research Bill to which the Minister has referred is currently before your Lordships’ House. It is causing concern because of the manner in which many new private higher education institutions could be allowed to enter the sector. There are already several well-established private higher education institutions that work to widen access to higher education. Even though they do not have degree-awarding powers, they are rigorously regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Does the Minister not accept that the proposal to allow new private higher education institutions to have degree-awarding powers from day one represents an unwarranted risk which could see students being offered a standard of education that is at best problematic?

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There is a balance to be struck here. We are very keen to encourage the setting up of new providers, examples of which include Ravensbourne College in east London and the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, but the key point that he is really alluding to is quality. If new providers are setting up and are given provision for degree-awarding powers from day one, it is critical that the quality conditions are met. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord that the bar for these conditions is set very high.

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My Lords, the Centre for Global Higher Education report published earlier this year entitled, The Entry and Experience of Providers of Higher Education in Six Countries, states:

“Private providers are quick to suffer the consequences of diminishing demand, forcing institutions to close. This can have serious educational and financial consequences for students at failing institutions who sometimes can be left in limbo”.

Given the current arrangements, with HEFCE as a regulator and the high hurdle of a royal charter for a new HE institution, what will the Government do to ensure that any new private providers in the UK do not become at risk of this happening?

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One of our reforms is to set up the Office for Students, as I mentioned earlier. It will provide one register to set a level playing field. This means that if, in what would perhaps be an unusual case, a private provider does not meet the standards required, there are student protection processes in place. That is an important part of our checks and controls.

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My Lords, as the Minister will know, additional powers were taken recently to allow the Home Office and what was then BIS to place caps on numbers where there were concerns about quality and recruitment among private providers. It appears that that power will be lost under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Bill, which will impose quality restrictions but, if provisional degree-awarding powers are given, will set no caps on numbers. In other words, the Government are actually getting rid of some of the powers that they have taken in recent years. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify if this is indeed the case and whether it would not be wise to retain for new institutions the ability to place a clear cap on student recruitment numbers.

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The new alternative providers, such as the recently announced Dyson Institute, will include some student number controls, but there will be a rigorous risk-based approach to quality assurance and a moratorium on the designation of new higher national courses. There will also be a fit-and-proper-person test for the running of APs. The noble Baroness and I will meet later and I look forward to talking further to her about that issue.

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My Lords, does my noble friend know the current percentage of foreign students at these private colleges? What does he expect it to be in a year’s time?

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I do not have that particular figure, but there is no change and no cap on foreign students coming to study in this country, as the Home Secretary has made clear.