Innovation, validation, skills, and excellent teaching: IHE conference covers the sector’s biggest issues


Independent HE has an important role to play in improving the UK’s skills and attracting international students post-Brexit, the sector’s conference heard.

“There are two big factors: productivity and social immobility, which are linked and which we have to tackle. The fluid independent HE sector is the way forward,” Neil Carmichael, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee told the Independent Higher Education (IHE) conference in London.

There were challenges ahead, he said: “The government is going to drive up quality and we need to think more about the technical and professional requirements we have… but if we pull together it will be OK. We’ve got to be elastic in thinking. We cannot rely on past certainties: they’ve all been blown away.”


Supporting skills acquisition and productivity was also highlighted by Ian Coates, director of HE Strategy and Policy in the DfE, who said his department’s focus was on supporting social mobility and making the whole education sector – from early years to lifelong learning – work together. The DfE was “at the cutting edge” of Brexit debates in Whitehall, he said, pointing to comments made by Universities Minister Jo Johnson about European and international students.

He added: “It’s important we understand you and your perspectives… we are really conscious of the uncertainty you face in planning ahead, which is why we have tried to provide what certainty we can in what looks like a long transition period. We are feeding in what we hear from you.”

He also valued the “strong dialogue” with senior IHE staff, in particular around validation of degrees, which he said was “absolutely influencing our thinking,” adding that despite calls to slow down there was more need than ever to press on with the HE reform programme and the Higher Education and Research Bill.


Alexander Proudfoot, chief executive of IHE, was delighted with the organisation’s first conference since its relaunch. “It feels like the world is now recognising and valuing the work of independent HE. We have a fantastic opportunity to show the positive impact our members can have on the sector. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved in the past year, and this conference has attracted some big names to help us discuss big issues.

“We want new providers to be ambitious, and to be restless in their pursuit of quality and innovation which helps to drive the sector forward. We’ve been delighted to present our interim report on a new, streamlined model for validation, with some draft principles of what good validation should look like, and I believe our successful collaboration with the Open University on this project shows the potential for constructive partnerships between the public and independent sectors.

“Our members have also had a chance to hear the thinking of those implementing the big changes around TEF, student data and visas, and to express their own thoughts directly. ”


First-time attendee Tony Harris, of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, had enjoyed the event. “It’s about keeping up-to-date with what’s going on, and it’s nice to know other people are having the same issues: you can feel quite isolated as an alternative provider.” Karl Hodgson of the London College of International Business Studies thought it had been a worthwhile, informative day with the chance to get a different perspective, while Gordon Sweeney of Point Blank Music School agreed that “the Independent HE conference did not disappoint”, praising the “fantastic event and engaging talks”.

The conference, at the AMBA Hotel Marble Arch in London, attracted around 140 delegates from independent HE and the wider sector. Wide-ranging sessions included a presentation on the interim report on qualification validation from the working partnership of the Open University, IHE and the Quality Assurance Agency, which included lively discussions about the reality of problems currently faced by independent HE providers. Another topical elective session gave practical information about how the TEF will be implemented, allowing delegates to voice concerns that lack of relevant data will leave most IHE providers with “provisional bronze” ratings early in the exercise.

Introducing a wide-ranging panel session on innovation Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, expressed concerns that the way in which TEF was rolled out might hinder innovation in the delivery of education “and we have to watch that carefully”. While the world was changing in “fast and unpredictable ways” he believed the appetite for HE would continue to grow, for entrants with BTECs as well as A Levels.


Professor Philip Wilson, Provost and Chief Executive of UCFB, said they were putting students at the centre of what they did, recognising that retention was driven by class sizes and that students needed to do something they felt passionate about. Staff were available every day of the year, and students had both an academic and complementary curriculum, with a wide range of courses including public speaking and food and wine appreciation which would be useful in future. Students, he said, would have three or four careers over their lifetimes and it was time to put them first when offering higher education.

“What differentiates your institution from anyone else’s is the question to ask. Competitive advantage in business means survival but it’s a dirty word in education. We need to be in a competitive market,” he said.


The closing panel discussion, UK Higher Education: An International Future?, also included positive messages about how independent providers could thrive. Conrad Bird, director of the GREAT Britain campaign, urged IHE providers to take advantage of this campaign and the opportunities it presents, rather than dwell on perceived challenges. “You can thrive in this regime, move forward. It’s tough but you can do it.”

Concluding, Professor Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council, said: “I am hearing we really need to work together. It looks increasingly complex and we need a lot of granular conversations. We need to have good strong colleges, good strong independent providers, Russell Group universities and everything in between that’s done in the UK. I want my role in the British Council to showcase that strong and diverse education sector and its many facets. We are in this boat together.”


  • On 5th December 2016