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Ministers ‘rush to approve private degree courses’

Ministers ‘rush to approve private degree courses’

BBC |July 12, 2012

By Hannah Richardson|BBC News education reporter

Ministers are being accused of “falling over themselves” to approve degree and diploma-level courses at private colleges in England.

New figures show 400 courses have been approved since 2010 when ministers pledged to open up the higher education market.

Private colleges are not subject to the same quality checks as public universities.

The government said it planned to strengthen checks on private providers.

Currently it is the Student Loans Company which checks course descriptions against information on courses in the public domain. It then passes this information on to government officials.

However, the universities minister David Willetts said in a parliamentary written answer earlier this year that such checks did not cover the quality of education provided.

Instead many private providers form partnerships with specific universities which take on a validation role for certain courses.


The figures were published by the Student Loans Company in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Times Higher Education magazine.

They showed the number of courses approved in 2011-12 rose by 77% from 228 in 2010-11 to a total of 403 in 2011-12.

The acceleration of the approval rate is also illustrated by the fact that one college had 98 courses approved by officials in just a single day.

Another college had 22 courses approved just weeks before it was closed by the UK Border Agency.

Head of the UCU academics’ union Sally Hunt said the data showed how little oversight the government has given to courses run by private providers.

She added: “At a time when public universities are being starved of funds, ministers seem to be falling over themselves to sign off ever- increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money to more or less any company which applies for designated course status.”

The government should act to to halt the “unregulated process and introduce stringent regulation for private providers”, she said.

Students on such “designated” courses qualify for government-backed tuition fee loans from the SLC.

‘Quality checks’

The firm said that some £55m in loans and grants was allocated to courses with private providers in 2010-11.

This figure is expected to rise considerably as such providers are able to increase their course charges from about £3,000 to £6,000 from this September.

But unlike universities, most private providers are not subject to stringent quality checks by the Quality Assurance Agency.

Universities UK said the UK’s public universities were some of the most highly-regulated in the world.

It said the QAA, which bases its checks of public universities on a “set of UK-wide nationally-agreed reference points”, has a key role in monitoring standards and auditing institutions.

Universities UK added that such private institutions were not subject to student numbers control or any of the accountability requirements from the funding body, Hefce.

‘Due diligence’

A UUK spokesman said: “We are very supportive of finding a way to bring them under the same student number controls and onto a level playing field, ensuring that they engage with the QAA, Hefce etc in the same way that our institutions have to.

“This is important to ensure that these organisations (QAA, Hefce) are seen to be meeting their obligations to safeguard the student experience and ensure public funding is spent effectively.”

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said all courses designated for student support must be validated by a recognised UK awarding body – such as a university – to help ensure quality.

“In the last 12 months, we have also introduced due diligence checks on organisations applying for designation for the first time. These look at a range of factors including financial sustainability and consideration of any parent company.

“But we recognise the case for going further and have recently said we are now looking at introducing more robust and transparent requirements on quality assurance, financial sustainability and governance,” he added.

The Student Loans Company said it checks colleges by asking them to provide information about the courses they offer including timetables, intensity and amount of days of study required.

It then checks this against information in the public domain and passes it on to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.


More university places for top A-level grade students

More university places for top A-level grade students

BBC |April 18, 2012

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent

Many more university places than expected are going to be allocated to top-grade A-level applicants this year.

Universities Minister David Willetts said 85,000 places – rather than the anticipated 65,000 – would go to students with AAB A-level grades.

This represents about one in four entrants – who are now much more likely to get their first choice.

Mr Willetts also admitted that a higher education bill, taking forward a raft of reforms, was now “very unlikely”.

Competing for places

In a speech to a conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Mr Willetts set out a progress report on changes to university funding and places.

He signalled afterwards that the White Paper published last summer was looking increasingly unlikely to become legislation.

But many changes – such as promoting more of a market in places – are already going ahead.

This includes removing the limit on places for applicants who get AAB grades or better.

“It is a radical change that has started to liberate the system,” said Mr Willetts.

It means that 20,000 more places than expected will be available to allow universities to expand to take these high-flying students.

However it will also mean that these 20,000 places will not be available to other institutions.

The Russell Group of leading universities says it wants even more places to be made available in this way – and calls for numbers to be relaxed for pupils getting ABB grades.

But there have been warnings that this will put pressure on some middle-ranking universities as students with high grades “trade up”to more prestigious institutions.

There have also been concerns about the instability created by such a shifting market in places.

Along with the 85,000 places now allocated to AAB students, there are a further 20,000 ring-fenced for those with lower tuition fees – leaving a shrinking pool of places for the rest of the university sector.

Mr Willetts is soon expected to announce the next wave of competition for places – and there were calls for him to pause until the effects of the current changes had been assessed.

The reforms will also have an impact on the attitude of students, said Mr Willetts, who predicted that universities would come under much greater consumer scrutiny about the quality of courses and teaching.

The universities minister used the speech to voice his support for Les Ebdon, whose appointment to head the Office for Fair Access (Offa) had been challenged by a select committee.

But Mr Willetts told the conference that there would be “no quotas” and “no social engineering” and that university admissions should be a “meritocracy”.

Nonetheless, Offa will still retain its sanctions over universities which do not meet the demands over “widening participation” in higher education.

International market

He said that £900m was being spent on projects to widen access, such as summer schools, outreach schemes and bursaries.

Mr Willetts also spoke about the economic significance of the burgeoning international opportunities for UK universities.

He quoted Unesco figures that by 2025, the number of global students in higher education will have risen to 260 million from the current 150 million.

As well as individual universities recruiting overseas students- and setting up overseas campuses – he called for a larger scale arrangement between the UK’s university sector and would-be students in some other countries.

But he was warned by Lord Winston that there were concerns that the tightening of visa arrangements could give the impression that UK universities were “closed for business”.

Mr Willetts also suggested that the capacity to set up a new university – both in practice, principles and assessment – could be exported from the UK to other countries.

“We are still only scratching the surface. This is one of Britain’s great growth industries of the future,” he said.

English Universities In ‘Squeezed Middle’ Fear Fall In Student Numbers

English Universities In ‘Squeezed Middle’ Fear Fall In Student Numbers

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

David Cameron speech

David Cameron speaks in 2010 to students at the University of East London, where the steepest drop in student numbers is expected. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A “squeezed middle” of English universities is expected to suffer sharp falls in student numbers this autumn, according to figures published on Thursday.

The data identifies a band of 34 universities which it says will be hit by the coalition’s reforms because they neither attract the best-performing students (those getting A-level grades of AAB or higher) nor offer the lowest fees of £7,500 or less.

The universities – including Bedfordshire, the University of Central Lancashire, Leeds Met and Sheffield Hallam – are expected to suffer drops of more than 10% in undergraduate student numbers for this autumn. The steepest drop, of 12.6%, is expected to be at the University of East London.

The squeeze comes at both ends under the reforms: top universities will be allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of the highest-performing students, while a total of 20,000 places have also been stripped from higher education institutions in England and auctioned off to universities and colleges charging average fees of £7,500 or less.

The estimated figures are published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which channels government money for teaching and research to universities.

The accuracy of the estimate depends on students’ choices, and the extent to which the most sought-after universities take advantage of the freedom to recruit more high-performing students.

Oxford and Cambridge have both said that they do not intend to expand their undergraduate intake this autumn or in the near future.

The government estimates that about 65,000 students will achieve grades of AAB or higher in this summer’s exams.

These candidates are being tempted with cut-price deals at some universities. Kent will give £2,000 scholarships to any recruit for 2012 who gains three As in their A-levels, regardless of family income. Bradford is offering £3,500 scholarships to all new recruits who gain AAB or above.

Earlier this month, more than 10,000 undergraduate student places for this autumn were awarded to further education colleges under government reforms that are encouraging the growth of a low-cost alternative to universities.

Professor Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex, which is predicted to suffer a 7.2% drop in student numbers compared with last year, said: “There are only so many AAB students to go around and they are likely to be snapped up by a few self-declared ‘elite’ institutions, able to rely on historical brand prestige to attract applications.

“Any university losing AAB students will not be allowed to take on students with different grades, such as two Bs and an A, to take their place. This means that many talented students will be denied places at highly regarded universities.”

Funding levels for universities for the next academic year were also announced. The figures show that funding for teaching has been cut by £1.1bn to £3.2bn, while money for research remains the same as last year at £1.6bn.

The gaps in funding are expected to be made up by the lifting of the cap on tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year from this autumn.

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of Hefce, said there had been a “switch in the balance” of who was paying for higher education now.

He said: “Many students from 2012-13 onwards, as graduates, are going to have to repay a lot of this funding and I don’t think we can underestimate the effect on them and their families.”

The universities minister, David Willetts, said in a statement: “We want a student-focused higher education sector, more choice over where to study and a renewed focus on the quality of the student experience.

“That’s why we’re freeing up centralised number controls, improving information for prospective students and driving a new focus on the academic experience.”

Ten biggest losers (in percentage terms)

University of East London – 12.6%

University of Bedfordshire – 12.4%

Middlesex University – 12.2%

Liverpool Hope University – 12%

University of Northampton – 12.1%

Edge Hill University – 11.9%

University of Central Lancashire – 11.7%

University of Lincoln 11.6%

University of Sunderland – 11.6%

Leeds Metropolitan University – 11.5%

Cambridge Protest Planned For Suspended Student

Cambridge protest planned for suspended student

BBC |March 16, 2012

Owen HollandStudents and staff at Cambridge University are to demonstrate against the suspension of a student for his part in a protest last November.

Owen Holland was suspended from the university for two-and-a-half years for reading out a poem during a speech by Universities Minister David Willetts.

The university’s disciplinary authority took the decision after a six-hour hearing on Wednesday.

Supporters of Mr Holland described the sentence as disproportionate.

The protest, against plans to raise student fees, cut short a planned speech by Mr Willetts in one of the university’s lecture halls.

Mr Holland read out a poem which was repeated back by other protesters.

Eventually Mr Willetts left without delivering the speech.

When Mr Holland was first charged with impeding the minister’s freedom of speech, more than 60 other staff and students wrote to the university authorities admitting their role in the protest and demanding that they be be charged with the same offence.

‘Singled out

Cambridge University Students Union has called for the sentence to be quashed.

Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, said:“When no laws are broken there is no reason for such a disproportionate punishment.

“It is clear that this decision has unfairly singled out an individual to make an example of.”

Mr Holland has 28 days to appeal.

Salima Mawji, an expert in education law, suggested a legal challenge to the suspension could be made on the grounds that the authorities appeared to have ignored admissions to alleged disciplinary offences by other students.

Ms Mawji asked: “Why was Mr Holland the only member of the student body to be singled out and punished despite open admissions by other students?”

The protest outside the University of Cambridge Old Schools building is due to start at 13:00 GMT on Friday and is expected to include students, staff and lecturers.

Cambridge Student Gets Seven-Term Ban For Poetic Protest At Willetts Speech

Cambridge student gets seven-term ban for poetic protest at Willetts speech

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

David Willetts

Higher education minister David Willetts was told ‘your gods have failed’ in the protest at Cambridge University. Photograph: Anna Gordon for the Guardian

A PhD student at Cambridge University has been suspended until the end of 2014 for his role in a protest against thehigher education minister, David Willetts.

In a ruling condemned as a travesty by fellow students, the English literature student was suspended for seven terms afterreading out a poem that disrupted a speech by the minister.

The student, named by a student newspaper as Owen Holland, read out a poem that included the lines: “You are a man who believes in the market and in the power of competition to drive up quality. But look to the world around you: your gods have failed.”

The minister was forced to abandon the speech on the “Idea of a University” last November, as protesters repeated the lines of the poem in response to the student.

The sentence – known as rusticating – was imposed by the university’s court of discipline, an independent body presided over by a high court judge.

In response, more than 60 academics and students wrote a“Spartacus” letter to the university admitting to their role in the original protest and demanding that they be charged for the same offence.

Rees Arnott-Davies, a student at Corpus Christi college, who was among the protesters, said: “This is out of all proportion. Two and a half years for an entirely legal and peaceful protest is an absolute travesty and makes me ashamed to study at this university. The idea that you can protect freedom of speech by silencing protest is the height of hypocrisy.”

Arnott-Davies said the court had exceeded the punishment requested by the university’s legal counsel, which sought a one-term suspension.

A Cambridge University spokesman said: “The university notes the decision of the court of discipline in its proceedings. By statute, the court of discipline is an independent body, which is empowered to adjudicate when a student is charged with an offence against the discipline of the university by the university advocate. The court may impose a range of sentences as defined by the statute.”

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