Fears over plans for private universities

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Ministers’ plans to allow more private universities to open in the UK could damage the country’s international reputation for higher education, a Government-ordered report warns.

A study conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) says there are a “number of risks” linked with expanding private universities.

These institutions may only want to focus on the subjects and students that are the most profitable, it says, and may not necessarily be interested in national attempts to recruit more poor students, or providing high-cost science and maths based subjects.

The report raises concerns about the quality of private universities, saying they are not obliged to be audited in the same way as state funded institutions.

This lack of regular available data makes it difficult to monitor them, and the experiences of students. It also warns that some qualifications offered by these institutions may not be as widely recognised as those from a publicly funded university.

The report says: “Private providers may only focus on those subjects, and those kinds of students, that are most profitable. They will not necessarily have an interest in widening participation, or the high-cost STEM subjects, for example. There is also no guarantee that they will continue to provide certain kinds of higher education if these do not remain profitable.”

It concludes that “taken together a number of these risks may amount to a reputational risk for UK higher education.

The University and College Union (UCU), which highlighted the report, said it will be writing to Universities Minister David Willetts calling for the Government to address the concerns set out in the report and to protect the UK’s reputation for higher education.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt urged the Government to reconsider its privatisation programme “before it is too late”.