Higher education in the UK has been dominated, historically, by an institutional “monoculture” of universities – a pattern changed into a “bi-culture” from the 1960s to 1992 with the creation of the polytechnics, under the control of local government, leading to the so-called “autonomous” and “public” sectors of higher education. We have now had in a sense, a reversion to type — a single standard institutional model with only minor variations. And although institutions in the UK are still often classified as either “old” (that is, pre-1992) or “new” universities, the passage of time means that the distinction is now eroding in the public’s mind and, of course, most people applying now to university were not even born in 1992.
Private higher education in the UK has hitherto been insignificant, as it has been in France, Germany, and most other Western European countries. In all these countries, state control and state funding have determined higher education policies throughout the 20th century – despite the organisational differences between the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education in the UK, and the Humboldtian and Napoleonic models which have prevailed across continental Europe. The combination of a relatively high, and predictable, standard of state-backed higher education, with no or minimal tuition fees, based on a long-established institutional pattern, aimed primarily at school-leavers in the country in question, with central controls of various kinds effectively setting minimum standards – all these factors have relegated private sector provision (whether for-profit or non-profit) to marginal positions in national patterns of higher education. It is perhaps worth noting that the University of Buckingham, which admitted its first students in 1976, claims to be the UK’s “only independent university with a Royal Charter”. What it means is that it does not receive any public financial support; in terms of formal governance, it is no different from most other UK universities. Whether this makes it more “independent” than other universities is an open question: is a defence contractor less independent than other companies because most of its revenues come from its national government?
Many of the factors that supported the state model no longer apply in the UK, at least not as they once did. The expansion of higher education and associated institutional changes in the UK since the 1980s have removed many of the old certainties and have created a more fluid environment. This environment has encouraged the growth of private sector providers, first teaching to degrees awarded by traditional universities, but later seeking their own degree-awarding powers. These were granted for taught degrees to the College of Law in 2006, BPP University College in 2007, Ashridge Business School in 2008, and IFS School of Finance in 2010. Of these, BPP is distinct in being part of an international for-profit company, whereas the others (shortly to be followed, it is expected, by Regents College) are private but non-profit institutions. There are, additionally, a range of for-profit organisations that fill particular niches in an increasingly complex higher education ecology – organisations that provide specialist student services to universities, for example.
Government policies from the late 1990s have stimulated competition between existing universities in England and lowered the barriers to entry for new providers. This process has been accelerated under the coalition government which took office in 2010 — its 2011 White Paper sets out a number of measures intended, apparently, to encourage greater private sector involvement in English higher education – for example, by making it easier to gain a university title, and to remove legal impediments to private companies buying existing universities. It seems as if the government has had second thoughts about the political wisdom of at least some of these moves, despite them being strongly backed by the Minister concerned, David Willetts.
There are, actually, a large number of private institutions working in higher education in the UK – certainly over 1000 of them, although no comprehensive register exists. But most are very small, typically teaching international students often for non-UK awards. The business model of many of these institutions is puzzling to an outside observer, as they seem to have no distinctive expertise or marketing proposition that would not be available, at a similar price, in more established institutions: they certainly do not have a recognised brand to offer. One conclusion is that they are teaching students who would not be admitted to a mainstream university on attainment grounds. It may be that the new, more restrictive, visa regime which the government is intent on introducing in the teeth of opposition from the entire university sector may put some of these small colleges out of business.
Another niche in this ecology is being filled by further education colleges, the UK’s vocational training institutions, which are expanding their higher education provision. This is currently being underpinned by the new tuition fee system from 2012, which, because of the incentives the government has built in to the structure, is allowing colleges to expand their higher education offer at lower fee levels than most universities (even, sometimes, when that university is the validating partner for the college in question). Government market-oriented policies are, again, pointing to a more diverse pattern of provision.
We therefore see a Venn diagram-like pattern of higher education developing, with intersecting fields of public and private provision, with a wider range of overlapping institutional types meeting a range of student demands. One feature of UK higher education has been what is sometimes called the “controlled reputational range”, with a fairly narrow difference between the “top” and “bottom” of the system: in other words, the Venn diagram circles have been mostly overlapping. These new providers are likely to widen this reputational range considerably. To what extent, then, will we still be able to speak of a higher education “system” or “sector” in the UK?