How the House of Lords might save us from a Trump University in Britain

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By Polly Botsford on

Government’s controversial university bill has stormy ride through upper house


The Higher Education and Research Bill, legislation aimed at creating a more competitive higher education ‘market’, is currently being debated in the House of Lords.

With massive opposition both within and outside parliament, the government’s plans to allow more private-sector involvement and regulatory oversight in higher education might yet be watered down with some crucial amendments put forward — and by the country’s Lords and Ladies no less.

The government argues it can raise teaching standards in higher education by increasing competition. It wants to achieve this by making it easier for providers to get degree-awarding powers and university status.

Critics say the proposals will (among other things) allow these new entrants to set up as so-called ‘universities’ all over the shop. They cite the United States where a competitive market is held responsible for scandals such as the now-defunct Trump University, in relation to which the current president recently paid out $25 million (£20 million) to settle fraud allegations.

The Lords’ amendments seek to underpin what a university actually is and so prevent poor-quality education providers using the term. In summary, the amendments mean that to become a university, a provider will have to demonstrate “implicit ideals of responsibility, engagement and public service” as Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara, Shadow Higher Education Minister in the House of Lords, who led the amendments, put it.

It is not clear whether the amendment will stick, and it is also not the only cause for concern in the bill. There are fears over the Teaching Excellence Framework, metrics system which will ultimately dictate whether a university can raise tuition fees.

Though the government argues that its bill is there to protect consumers — formerly known as ‘students’ — student bodies oppose the bill, and have recently called to boycott the National Student Survey.

Ana Oppenheim from the National Executive Council of the National Union of Students (NUS) told the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NACFC):

The Teaching Excellence Framework has nothing to do with teaching quality, and everything to do with fee rises, marketisation and serving the interests of business at the expense of students and staff. The reforms are an attack on the very idea of public education, and we will use any means available to us to fight for its future.

The law degree ‘market’ has already been penetrated by private provision in the UK and provides some useful examples of how difficult the commercial realities of that can be. Only this week, the US conglomerate, Apollo Education, which owns BPP Law School, announced its sale to private equity.

A couple of years ago, the only other private law school in the UK, the University of Law, was sold to Global University Systems (GUS), though no one knows for how much. Originally it had been the College of Law, until that was sold to private equity in 2012 for a cool £200 million.

The bill reaches the Report stage in the House of Lords on 6 March 2017.

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