The vast majority of higher education in the United Kingdom (UK) has been delivered by public universities and colleges. The titles “University” and “University College” are legally protected, as are degree awarding powers, and these, until recently, have been exclusively located in the public sector. The University of Buckingham, the first, and for decades the only private university, was not awarded the title until 1983.
Yet there has long been a private higher education sector in the UK, made up of colleges of professional training and niche providers offering vocational subjects outside the Universities’ traditional remit. These range from qualifications necessary to practice law or accountancy, to psychotherapy and chiropody. The creative arts have also had a notable presence: from independent art and design schools to a complete monopoly for training for actors for much of the 20thcentury.
Recently, the UK government has sought to foster the growth of private higher education and stimulate competition within the sector as a whole. In Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice,the government proposes more private higher education will lead to “a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost.” (p.8). The government to suggests that private providers are more responsive to the changing skills needs of employers, more flexible in modes of delivery and well placed to meet international student demand for a UK higher education. To this end the government has enacted legislation to make titles and degree-granting authority easier to access.
Yet the private sector remains an unknown quantity. In the absence of public funding, the private sector has not been subject to any official regulation or even oversight, nor has there been any systematic data collected. There have been several attempts to collect data about the private HE sector in the UK but with low response rates that never exceeded 40 per cent.
Size and Composition of the Sector
Our survey identified a total of 813 private higher education providers active in the UK in 2017. Only some 115 were entitled to enrol students with publicly-backed loans for “designated courses”.
An overwhelming 88 percent of private providers are located in England with a token presence in the rest of the UK. Furthermore, 37 percent of all providers were located in London and almost 50 percent located in the southeast of England.
Five providers held the title of University and a further four the title of University College. These were largely professional training colleges—law, accountancy, estate management, banking—and all were of decades-long standing. All nine of those providers have degree awarding powers. Other than the University of Buckingham, the earliest any other provider was granted degree awarding powers was in 2006 followed with university status in 2010.
Sixty-five percent of providers were registered as for-profit companies; the majority of for-profits were less than 20 years old while the majority of not for-profits over 20 years old. The for-profits also accounted for the greater proportion of failed providers—23 percent of the 732 of providers identified in 2014 had ceased to operate in 2017, 90 percent were for-profit.
Qualifications and Subjects Offered
The private sector as a whole tends to concentrate on sub-degree level qualifications at levels four (58 per cent of all providers offered qualifications at this level) and five (53 per cent). Forty-three per cent offered post graduate qualifications, principally diplomas at level seven. Only 20 percent of providers offered bachelor level degrees.
There is a high degree of specialisation evident. Most providers (64 percent) offered courses in only one major subject area. A further 24 percent offered courses in only two major subject areas while just 12 percent offered three or more subject areas.
More than 56 percent of providers offer courses in business and administration. These courses are cheap to run and popular. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) lists 353 of these courses at level four or above. They are also a speciality of for-profit providers with three-quarters of all for-profit providers offering courses in business and administration compared to only a quarter of non-profit providers.
Students at Private Providers
Information about student numbers is available for only a limited number of private providers that offer designated courses—there were 58,735 students on designated higher education courses at private providers in 2016/17. This represents slightly over two percent of the total number of students in UK higher education.
The composition of the student body at private providers is distinct from the public sector in several respects—they tend to be older and are likely to be from an ethnic minority. Interestingly, women are the majority of students in both sectors while there is a greater proportion of male students in the private sector. Half of the ten providers with the highest drop-out rates for first degrees were private providers. It is often contended that private providers face greater drop-out rates because of the greater prevalence of non-traditional students.
The private higher education sector in the UK reflects a distinct character and a high degree of diversity.
Many established niche, and frequently non-profit providers, continue to offer education for professional qualifications and are the institutions most recently elevated to University or University College status. More recently-established for-profit providers often replicate each other’s program offerings, typically at sub-degree level, and compete with one another for non-traditional students. These providers are undoubtedly meeting market demand but do not yet appear to be providing an alternative to the public sector. A genuine alternative sector, as envisaged by the government, may only be realised by the infusion of overseas capital investment.
Stephen A. Hunt is Research Associate at the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL Institute of Education.Twitter: @SteveCGHE
Vikki Boliver is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Durham University. Twitter: @VikkiBoliver