Degrees for sale

Britain has its first new private university in more than 30 years.

BPP, which offers business and law degrees at 14 places in the United Kingdom, will become a university college with immediate effect. The title is awarded to smaller higher-education institutions that deliver a limited range of degrees and qualifications.

BPP has been a subsidiary of the United States higher education company Apollo Global since July 2009 and was listed on the London Stock Exchange. The move, approved by David Willetts, the universities minister, signals the government’s desire to expand the number of profit-making, private-sector institutions in higher education.

Willetts said it was “healthy to have a vibrant private sector working alongside our more traditional universities”. This would create a “dynamic and flexible” degree system and could encourage online degrees.

BPP, which intends to offer healthcare and teaching degrees in future, will not receive public funding and will be allowed to set its own fees. An increase in private universities could reduce the pressure on university places.

Figures published this month by the UK’s university admissions service, Ucas, revealed that about 170 000 people will miss out on a place at university in England when the new academic year begins in September, as applications surged by 11.6%, a record high. But trade unions, such as the University and College Union (UCU), believe private universities are not in the interest of students.

They say institutions should be publicly funded and democratically accountable. Private companies are not subject to the same academic rigour or public scrutiny as publicly funded universities and they are also exempt from freedom of information legislation.

Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, said BPP “could mark the beginning of a slippery slope for academic provision in this country. Encouraging the growth of private providers and making it easier for them to call themselves universities would be a disaster for the UK’s academic reputation.

It would also represent a huge threat to academic freedom and standards. “It is essential that David Willetts listens to our finest minds instead of being wooed by a private sector more interested in profit than probity. Private providers are not accountable to the public and do not deserve to be put in the same league as our universities.”

The last time the title university college was conferred was for Buckingham University College, now the University of Buckingham, in 1976.

Carl Lygo, BPP’s chief executive, said: “The education landscape is changing, and over the next decade we will see a different picture emerging, where both students and employers will drive demand for their preferred method of study and training. “We see ourselves as a pioneer in this field, and hope that our unique status and self-funding model will lead the way [in creating an environment that] other providers will be able to operate in.”

The move comes ahead of a review of higher education this October, led by former BP chief executive Lord Browne, which is expected to tackle the rise in demand for university places. About 96% of professors do not believe it should be easier for private companies to become universities, a poll conducted by the UCU found.—

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