Taking partnerships seriously at the outset could have avoided a franchising furore

This blog, authored by IHE’s Chief Executive, Alex Proudfoot, was first published on Wonkhe.

Kenneth Baker memorably described further education as the Cinderella sector. But all tertiary education providers without university in their title will be forgiven for sometimes feeling like they are locked in the cellar of public debate, mostly out of sight.

And just like further education colleges, the vast majority of independent providers can only offer higher education in partnership with a university – or in many cases, multiple universities all at once. These partnerships are the carriages without which these Cinderella providers would not get within a whisker of the higher education ball.

Partnerships are engines of social mobility and of student choice. They are precious and too often they are fragile. At the stroke of midnight, a Cinderella provider who believed they had a reliable partner can suddenly find themselves alone in the street holding a pumpkin.

The National Audit Office report last week which documents incidents of fraud and lax quality controls within franchised provision makes for uncomfortable reading. For those of us who have lived the ups and downs of regulating higher education over the past 15 years (did I mention IHE just celebrated its birthday?), it is also immensely frustrating. It speaks to a continued failure of the regulation introduced by the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017 to prioritise its most fundamental aim: a single system for everyone, with a regulator that takes responsibility for every student, and that understands and facilitates all of the very different institutional contexts in which they learn.

Wherever regulation fails to keep pace with the economic realities of a market, incentives and opportunities for bad actors to prosper will follow. But we need to keep these findings in proportion. The applications for student loans identified by SLC as suspicious represented just three per cent of franchised provision, but given that only 25 per cent of this money was still withheld as of January 2023 we can assume the actual number of fraudulent claims to be considerably lower. Any response must be proportionate to this relatively small scale, while demonstrating real understanding and sensitivity to the regulatory needs and challenges unique to this provision.

Nevertheless, there clearly are vulnerabilities in the system and these must be addressed with effective actions to prevent any criminal exploitation which can only be damaging to the interests of students and institutions, and to the reputation of the sector as a whole.

Far from a fairy tale

Regulators appear to have been caught flat footed, and doubtless will come in for criticism from the Public Accounts Committee, but this is largely a situation of their own making. We have repeatedly called for regulators to get to grips with how partnerships operate across the sector but they have repeatedly failed to allocate the resources necessary to do this work.

Occasional glancing references to reviewing the validation market have been grudgingly squeezed into strategies and business plans, but the only substantive action has been (at DfE’s insistence) to commission the Open University to expand its validation activities to reach more higher technical education, including at further education colleges – a very welcome initiative but limited in scope and not a replacement for the proper market analysis that we have asked for and which had been promised since 2018.

The validation system was rightly pinpointed by Jo Johnson in 2016, when he was universities minister, as the biggest drag on competition and the single greatest barrier to entry into the higher education sector. It formed the focus of IHE’s first major project that year, working with the Open University and Quality Assurance Agency to identify common issues and making recommendations on how to improve it, including to the still-putative future regulator. Our hope was that the new registration process could help to strengthen and streamline market entry, with OfS working in harmony with validating universities to build robust but efficient checks from which students and the public could draw greater confidence.

Furthermore, we hoped that the attention of the regulator would introduce more balance into the relationship between awarding and teaching provider; more sunlight onto standard contractual provisions, including number caps and anti-compete clauses; and more universities having the confidence to partner, in a way that meets the needs of both providers. All this would have helped increase the accessibility and affordability of this fundamental service for new providers. In reality the only difference that OfS’s approach has made so far has been to heighten the risk of partnerships, add to their instability, and ratchet up the cost.

We have also called repeatedly for OfS to investigate why so many providers have not applied to register – far fewer than originally forecast – and to take the necessary steps to ensure that all providers of regulated higher education in England are eligible and encouraged to apply, that the processes followed are proportionate to their size and understanding of their context, and that their applications are dealt with expeditiously.

Instead at IHE we still deal on a daily basis with providers who want the public assurances that registration would offer their students, and want to operate independently of any partner, but who find they are not eligible, get no response to their enquiries, or find themselves stuck in limbo for months or years at a time without any clear route to completion. Is it any wonder that increasing numbers give up and choose to outsource responsibility for this whole mess to a willing partner?

The blind spots in the regulatory oversight of the sector seem obvious today, looking in the rear view mirror. We missed the opportunity to build a more complete picture of provision that could have helped us now. A commitment to a Basic category of registration could have created a framework for initiating a regulatory relationship with all English higher education providers.

It could have been a requirement easily adopted by all universities as a precondition of a validation or subcontractual partnership. It could have made clear to students what due diligence had been undertaken by the OfS, and which university partners had responsibility for the quality and standards of which provision. It could have provided easy access to information on students’ consumer rights and their ability to seek redress via the OIA. It could now be rapidly adapted to accommodate the new wave of tertiary education providers who we expect to transition to the Lifelong Learning Entitlement funding system – instead of reinventing the wheel with what seems to be an indefinitely delayed “third registration category.”

Help us to help you

We are where we are. Academic partnerships must be here to stay. In validation and in franchise form, and the many bespoke in-betweens, partnerships are essential to the functioning of the higher education sector today, and to the availability and accessibility of so much provision across different disciplines, industries and regions of the UK. The sector is so much bigger than the 140 or so universities which between them control the awarding of most degrees and other qualifications on the FHEQ, and that wider sector runs on partnerships. It’s time to recognise how critical they are and start giving them the attention and the care that they deserve.

IHE is leading a sector-wide steering group to deliver the first major review of academic partnerships since our 2016 validation project, and we will be issuing a report in the spring focused on understanding the state of partnerships across UK HE today, make some recommendations for action and identify areas for further work. We need your help to make this as comprehensive as possible and help to form the evidence base in this space which has been so sorely lacking.

Last year, we surveyed teaching providers and spoke with colleges to understand their experiences of academic partnerships; from well-established arrangements to those currently seeking partners. We also spoke with students about their experiences of learning under a partnership. We found a nuanced variety of fruitful and well-managed collaborations, exploring areas such as risk management in quality, perceptions of value, and the processes around seeking and ending partnerships.

We are now looking to learn from the other side of these relationships, and we are seeking responses from those with UK degree awarding powers to a new survey just launched, which will stay open until 12 February 2024. This data will complement what we have learned from teaching providers and from student feedback to help us form a complete picture of partnerships today and inform our conclusions and recommendations.

Collaboration and partnership are universal qualities of higher education. They run through the sector like a stick of rock. Let’s celebrate the partnerships we have and not hide them away in the cellar. It’s time to take your partner to the ball.

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