You are correct to call on the government to pause its “misconceived higher education bill” (Editorial, 23 September). The uncertainty over Brexit is reason enough, but we would argue your concerns over the arrival of a Trump university must be not be overlooked – especially with the bill so keen to allow the for-profit companies circling UK higher education greater access to our sector. The government’s own adviser, Alison Wolf, has warned of an impending “American-style catastrophe” should the bill go through, stating her concerns that the number of poor-quality colleges would increase, the reputation of higher education would be damaged and students would pile up considerable debt to obtain worthless degrees.
The higher education bill sets out the government’s argument that insufficient competition and lack of informed choice are the primary weaknesses of the higher education system in England, and that opening up the market to new providers will drive improvements in quality. In reality, competition increases the pressure on institutions to spend money on cosmetic improvements and gimmicks rather than front-line delivery. In the US, for example, competition between providers led to increased spend on marketing and recruitment, with for-profit institutions spending 22.7% of revenue on this area – 5% more than is spent on teaching.
Making it easier for new private providers to obtain degree-awarding powers is at odds with the primacy of academic quality and the protection of students’ interests, since new institutions will not have to prove their quality and robustness through building up a track record. As you quite rightly point out, the government should pause. This is no time to upend one of our most successful exports.