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Could universities be sold off?

Could universities be sold off?

The Guardian World News |by Harriet Swain

Cambridge University: some university activities may be financed with private cash

Cambridge won’t be up for sale just yet… but some university activities may be financed with private cash. Composite: PA/Guardian

After months of speculation, the College of Law was sold last week to a private equity firm with no experience of education.

At first sight, it seems a mere footnote to the main fees and funding story dominating UK higher education.

But the sale to Montagu Private Equity, for around £200m, is being seen as a possible model for growing involvement in higher education by for-profit companies.

While legal and education policy experts think it unlikely that private companies will take over traditional universities entirely in the near future – Russian oligarchs won’t be getting their hands on Cambridge quite yet – they do foresee some university activities soon being financed with private cash.

Robin Middlehurst, co-author of two recent reports on private involvement in higher education, says: “I’m sure that, as public funding goes down, publicly funded institutions will … look to issue bonds and have some kind of different private financing. It means the beginning of something that hasn’t been here up to now.”

Glynne Stanfield, a partner at the law firm Eversheds, which helped to develop the College of Law sale, says it could be used by all UK universities, not just as the basis of an outright sale, which he thinks will be rare, but to allow investors to buy some kind of stake in an institution, with the valuation depending on the profitability of that institution and its brand.

“We are seeing the liberalisation of the UK market and there will no doubt be many innovative structures developed over the next couple of years as the government seeks to reduce taxpayer funding in higher education,” he says.

The College of Law deal divides the college’s training activities from its charitable role promoting legal education and fair access to the legal profession. It hands to a new company, set up with funds managed by Montagu, all the college’s education and training business, including its brand, contracts with law firms and degree-awarding powers.

A separate Legal Education Foundation, established with the proceeds of the sale, will provide bursaries, scholarships and grants for future law students.

These mechanisms appear to avoid many of the difficulties involved in transferring the valuable power to award degrees, which most institutions have earned over years – sometimes centuries – to new organisations, and offer for-profit companies a way into the booming higher education market.

This could be especially valuable since the higher education white paper, which had included measures to make it easier for new providers to award degrees, has been indefinitely delayed.

While the College of Law is a private institution, it is also a charity and – like many pre-92 universities – has a Royal Charter. If this charter has not stood in the way of a sale in the case of the college, it may not be an obstacle to the sale of ordinary universities – or parts of them.

This worries the University and College Union, which is working on a report due out next month on private equity in higher education. It is pressing the government to introduce safeguards to protect universities’ assets and reputations in the light of growing interest from for-profit companies. The union wants measures in place to stop institutions handing over assets acquired through public investment to for-profit firms that can use them to generate dividends.

“What the College of Law shows is that charity law isn’t enough,” says UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt. “The government needs to take urgent action to ensure that public assets and investment are protected and any change of ownership should trigger an immediate review of degree-awarding powers.”

The concern is that if it becomes easier for more organisations, with diverse business interests, to award degrees, the quality of a UK degree could suffer.

The Quality Assurance Agency is also seeking discussions on this with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. “It is an issue we have raised some concerns about,” says Stephen Jackson, the QAA’s director of reviews. “The concern is that new owners might have plans for an entity which might go beyond those originally envisaged when it was given degree-awarding powers.”

The College of Law was the first private education provider to be granted the power to award degrees in 2006, and has just undertaken the formal review of those powers that takes place every six years. It will therefore not have to reapply for another six years.

Four other private providers can now also award degrees, including BPP, a professional training provider owned by a private equity company, the Carlyle Group, and by Apollo Global, a subsidiary of the American for-profit higher education company Apollo Group.

Gary Attle, head of education at the law firm Mills and Reeve, says increasing competition from large global companies such as Apollo may have prompted the College of Law to explore the sale.“It probably thought ‘if we have to compete in this market globally, we’d better do something’.”

For now, he says, most mainstream universities have less need of private equity and are less attractive to investors than specialist institutions. While demand has dropped for legal training, it still offers clearer potential for profit than, say, philosophy.

But he adds that even mainstream universities are thinking differently about how they operate, including separating off some of their activities, ones that could attract private money.

Matthew Robb, head of the higher education practice at the consultancy group Parthenon in London, gives an example of where this could lead. A university, instead of using its successful business school to subsidise less profitable courses, could sell it off and invest the money.

The case of the College of Law could bring such a scenario a step closer.


Academies: they don’t see themselves as Gove sees them

Academies: they don’t see themselves as Gove sees them

The Guardian World News

Schools are stampeding to become academies, says Estelle Morris, but no one – least of all the government – seems to know what they are actually doing

The Wellington Academy in Tidworth, Wiltshire

A new report says that ‘few academies are using the autonomy they have to change … radically’. Photograph: Sam Frost

In the Labour party of the 1970s, being asked your view on something like nuclear disarmament was shorthand for establishing whether you were on the right or the left of the party – a sort of checklist approach to politics. It was not the party’s finest hour.

Two decades later, Michael Gove is resorting to the same practice. If you are “for his agenda”, you are checklisted as a reformer, a friend of high standards; if you are in any way a critic, you are an enemy of progress and willing to tolerate underperformance. He goes further and seems to define “support of his agenda” as being in favour of the one policy of academies. If only education were that simple, we would have solved all the problems years ago.

There is little evidence that continually changing the structure of schools or giving them new designations guarantees success, but there is a history of school titles becoming shorthand for particular types of school practice – a checklist approach to education. The title grammar or comprehensive, grant-maintained or independent, triggers a whole lot of assumptions about what is happening in the classrooms. I would be amazed if it were possible to generalise in this way.

We are at risk of doing the same with academies. The original shorthand description was: independent state schools free from local authority control. And that has been a label that the present government has been happy to keep. Whether it tells us anything about what accounts for a school’s success or failure, I very much doubt.

Under the last government, there was a set of characteristics of academies that described what happened in the school rather than the label attached to it. Academies were almost always undersubscribed schools serving disadvantaged areas that took on new leadership, developed a partnership with an outside sponsor, agreed a fresh school action plan and were closely monitored and supported – all in a new or substantially improved school building. It has always been my view that it is these characteristics that led to such impressive improvement in the first wave of academies.

Almost two years after the Academies Act, the trickle of academies has become a stampede. Clearly, successful schools do not need the close supervision – so do we know what is happening in this new version of academies and what motivates those who lead them?

A recently published research booklet by Reform and The Schools Network sheds some interesting light on what is happening beneath the academy label.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the expectation of additional money is the main reason given for wanting to become an academy, but more interesting is how the schools intend to use their new status.

It is here that there seems to be a divergence between what the government claims are the characteristics of their brand of academies and what is actually happening. The schools put the academy freedoms most trumpeted by the government – freedom from the national curriculum, flexibility over pay and conditions, and freedom over the length of the school day and the structure of the term – all pretty much at the bottom of their list.

The report goes on to say that many of the schools’ proposed changes are ones that are possible without academy status and “few are using the autonomy they have as academies to change the workforce or educational offer radically”.

According to the research, schools are attracted by vaguer, less tangible benefits – described as a “general ethos of financial and educational autonomy”. If this eventually leads to improved teaching and higher standards, that will be excellent news, but there is a responsibility on the government to drop the rhetoric and be much more rigorous about finding out what is actually happening on the ground.

The government defines success as the number of schools that carry the academy label. It might be good politics, but it is bad education. It tells us little of substance, and if we are to build on the best of three decades of education reform, we will need to be clearer about what is happening in the classroom and not be taken in by the label on the school gate.

The growth of the ‘Titan’ schools

The growth of the ‘Titan’ schools

The Guardian World News |by Fran Abrams

Gascoigne primary, according to the latest official statistics, is the biggest primary in England

Gascoigne primary is the biggest primary school in England, according to the latest official statistics. In two years’ time there will be more than 1,200 pupils

Bob Garton, the headteacher of Gascoigne primary school in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, has a slightly faraway look in his eye. “There used to be playing fields,” he says, “big enough for a proper football pitch.”

Standing at the first-floor window, we can see a graphic illustration of the school’s major problem laid out below us. Those fields are now completely covered by four mobile classrooms, a children’s centre and an early-years block. Where there used to be a playground, there’s now a dining hall for 500 pupils – far too small; it takes nearly two hours for the whole school to eat lunch. There are two more mobiles on the teachers’ car park, and, last year, the library had to be wedged into a windowless temporary building in an alley to make way for yet another extra class. This year, the music room has to go; next year, a few remaining flower beds will make way for four permanent classrooms.

Welcome to what is – according to the latest official statistics – England’s biggest primary school. In a couple of years’ time, when two extra classes finish working their way up through the school, there’ll be more than 1,200 pupils.

Gascoigne was always a big school. When Garton became head of the newly combined junior and infant schools in 1999, there were 700 pupils here – nearly three times the average number for a primary school. It must be hard for its staff to imagine how it could ever have been that small. It now feels like several schools on one site, each with its own fence and its own little playground. Most of the children are taught in single-storey blocks, built in the 1970s to replace an old Victorian school, and their corridors seem to go on for ever.

Growing pupil numbers are not the only issue with which Gascoigne primary has to grapple. There are 60 different languages spoken here – the major ones are Lithuanian, Portuguese and Albanian – and the turnover of families is huge. Four out of 10 pupils leave in the course of each year, and very few stay from age five to 11. The school website says, rather touchingly, that there are “approximately 984” pupils, but that’s well out of date. They are counted weekly, and last Thursday, there were 1,085.

“We have children who suddenly don’t turn up – they may have gone back to their country of origin, they may have moved suddenly, they may have been deported,” says Garton. “Homeless families have to move every six weeks, though the children might continue coming to the same school. Once we had a boy who was six foot six, even though his parents said he was 10. Other schools don’t have to deal with these sorts of problems.”

Gascoigne is not alone in grappling with increasing numbers. According to the Department for Education, there are a growing number of these super-schools, particularly in London and other major cities. By 2020, there will be an extra 800,000 pupils in English primary schools, bringing the total close to five million – a 20% increase in 10 years. And it’s acknowledged that the number of these “Titan schools”, as they’re being called, is bound to grow. By 2015, there’ll be primary schools with more than 1,000 pupils in no fewer than seven London boroughs, and also in Birmingham.

Local authorities say they’ve been left with few options but to expand existing schools. The Department for Education has promised£4bn to tackle the problem, but in many areas there isn’t the space, let alone the money, to build new schools. In Birmingham, the birth rate rose by 25% between 2000 and 2007, and those children are now arriving in school. Brent council, in London, recently published a report saying it would need an extra 23 primary classrooms in the next few years, while in Barking there was discussion about whether a disused Woolworth’s store could be used for teaching.

Professor John Howson, of Oxford University, says this crisis should have been dealt with long before now. He has said for several years that the increase in pupil numbers is the biggest problem facing the English school system. “The government should have stopped rebuilding secondary schools some time ago, because it didn’t have enough money to provide about 700,000 extra places by 2020,” he says. “This increase will take numbers back to a level not seen since the 1970s – and since then we’ve lost classrooms because we’ve got three- and four-year-olds in schools.”

He believes primary schools with more than 1,000 pupils are a worrying development. “I’m seriously concerned about five-year-olds in the playground or the lunch queue in that size of school. In the classroom it doesn’t matter, but you have to manage the social spaces. I would be anxious about what happens in the playground, because you can’t control it.”

Others disagree. David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, admits there are huge pressures – London councils have to build the equivalent of around 200 primary schools in the next few years to cope with increasing numbers. But “Titan schools” are part of the answer, he says – not all parents want their children to go to small, intimate primary schools.

“Different parents want different things, and councils are trying to make sure there are a range of sizes of school in each area,” he says. “In a bigger school, there’s a greater variety of teachers with more experience, and a wider range of subjects. So children are more likely to find something that suits them.”

Simmonds is deputy leader of Hillingdon council in London. One of its largest primary schools is Pinkwell, which currently has 985 pupils and will expand to 1,200 in the next few years. Its vice-chair of governors, Dominic Gilham, says the decision to expand wasn’t a hard one. Unlike Gascoigne, Pinkwell is well endowed with large playing fields, and finding space for an extra class in each year group won’t be a problem. The increase, which will make Pinkwell as large as an average secondary school, will bring benefits, such as non-teaching maths and English co-ordinators, says Gilham, as well as challenges.

“After discussions with parent governors, we felt it would be for the benefit of Pinkwell and the pupils,” he said. “A parent suggested we have small schools within the large one, so we have clearly defined areas for different ages, and a deputy head in charge of each key stage. It has a small-school feel,” he says.

Gascoigne has a similar approach. Walking around the school, it’s hard to believe it’s as crowded as it is. The atmosphere is calm, and although the buildings seem vast, each small space within them feels welcoming. It’s raining today, and in the year-1 classroom children are doing exercises to a video instead of going out.

And Garton seems remarkably calm and cheerful. His school has been rated good by Ofsted, with particular praise for the caring way in which it handles its newcomers and vulnerable pupils. There are advantages to the remarkable population his school has, he says– recent migrant parents tend to be very respectful of teachers, and are often ambitious for their children. Several different ethnic communities run their own Saturday schools here.

He passionately disputes the notion that a huge primary school like his is any less caring or nurturing than a smaller school.“Just because a school’s got 200 pupils, it doesn’t mean it’s a good school,” he says. “Children here are really well cared for on an individual basis; my senior staff are present all the time looking for children who are quiet on a particular day. And I may not know the names of all the pupils, but they certainly know me.”

Critics need to look before they judge, he says. “They need to come and see a place like this working. You have to really want to do this job – I wouldn’t have stayed here so long if the school hadn’t grown the way it has – it’s been so interesting.”

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