The Higher Education and Research Bill, a culmination of many years of campaigning by the independent higher education sector, reached the Bill Committee stage this Tuesday. A number of witnesses were called to give evidence on the Bill, including Independent HE’s CEO Alex Proudfoot and Vice Chair Paul Kirkham, as well as representatives from two Independent HE members, Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design and UCFB.
During the morning session, the very first question asked was about the most important aspect of this Bill and its aims: students and more specifically, student representation on all new proposed bodies under the HE Bill. Alex Proudfoot made it clear that “student representation is an excellent idea” but pointed out that many alternative providers do not have formal student unions which are affiliated with the NUS, making it difficult for the voice of their students to be represented at this national level.
In the afternoon session, the panel was asked whether independent providers would in fact want to opt in to the new single-system of regulation proposed by the Bill. Susie Forbes, the Principal of Condé Nast College, was quick to draw the MPs’ attention to the fact that the majority of providers are already heavily regulated. The proposed system would simply streamline this regulation and make it more accessible and easier to implement for smaller providers, as well as making it equal to the strict requirements that public providers must adhere to.
Another key theme that emerged through questioning was how providers would support widening participation aims. Professor Philip Wilson, Chief Executive of UCFB, spoke of the importance of recognising achievement relative to an individual’s particular academic background. Dame Ruth Silver, co-chair of the Skills Commission and Founding President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, also made it clear that as many colleges have flexible start dates, online courses and a more personal learning environment, they are able to cater to a wider range of students than most universities. Additionally, the panel highlighted that the Bill will see the inclusion of independent providers in government higher education information for the first time, meaning that every student will have access to information on the wide range of courses they offer.
The question of how the Bill will increase social mobility through the HE sector was also raised. Neil Bates, the Principal and Chief Executive of Prospects College of Advanced Technology, answered that the industry-focused and specialist nature of many colleges meant that their graduates are highly skilled in their specific field and are job-ready.
The final key question directed at the panel was focused on the challenges that new providers face in entering the market. Angela Jones echoed Independent HE’s concerns that finding a validating partner is often a “difficult process” as there is no central body to turn to should you need guidance or advice. Professor Wilson reaffirmed that “a central body would be very welcome”. During the morning evidence session, Alex Proudfoot also spoke about validation, arguing that the Office for Students “should have the power reserved” to validate degrees. He explained that the current validation system is broken, highlighting the anti-competitive behaviour of some validating institutions, the abrupt withdrawal of others who left students “high and dry”, and in general an increase in universities choosing to act in their own private interest and not in the wider public interest of “diversifying the landscape of higher education”.
The committee stage was a good opportunity for MPs to get an insight into how the independent HE sector currently operates, and to dispel some common myths and stereotypes. The panel of representatives from the independent HE and further education sector certainly rose to the occasion and were successfully able to voice their opinions on many of the issues that Independent HE members are most concerned about.
- Posted by Rhys Newcombe-Jones
- On 16th September 2016