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Willetts signals new UK HE regulation for all

A new regulatory policy “is coming” that will pave the way for parity of policy between UK HE institutions and Alternative Providers (APs) from the private sector, Universities Minister David Willetts told the Study UK conference this week. Its members represent the “voice of independent education”.

There was a "tit for tat assumption" about the ease of operating on the other side of the regulatory fence, he said

He told delegates he was keen to see “sufficiently rigorous and evenly applied policy” across the sector. A uniform regulatory landscape was required, he indicated, before equal policy relating to part-time work rights, reporting requirements and access to funding could occur.

Currently, students enrolled at private providers are not able to work part-time, but they can do so while at a public FE or HE institution, and this and other distinct policy (such as annual reporting requirements) was clearly a source of frustration among the audience, as voiced to Willetts and also to George Shirley, Head of PBS Sponsorship at UKVI, who spoke on a panel session at the conference.

But Willetts warned the audience that with common regulation would come other requirements, such as submitting to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and data collection, that might be more burdensome.

While APs might feel HEIs had it easier, there was a “tit for tat assumption” about the ease of operating on the other side of the regulatory fence, he said, adding he wanted to encourage a “plural diverse sector”.

Rules had been set when there was clear evidence that students at private providers were more likely to abuse the terms of their visa

Shirley also addressed the point when pressed to acknowledge the fact that some regional universities were setting up campuses in London and filling the shoes of private providers who could not compete with an offer that included part-time work rights.

He said that the rules had been set when there was clear evidence that students at private providers were more likely to abuse the terms of their visa or use the student route as a backdoor to working in the country.

“There is no stated intention” to revisit that evidence, he said, but he too underlined that cross-sector regulation would be a first step to changing the current two-tier landscape.

The HE Commission has called for a common regulatory framework before 2015, in light of the government opening up higher education to private providers, the “single biggest shake-up to HE since tuition fees were introduced in 1998”. Currently, institutional failure in the private sector is not covered by any safeguard.

Willetts also used his keynote address to mention student number controls, in light of guidance published this week about rules for alternative higher education providers (APs). There will be controls in 2014/15, Willetts confirmed, because “a surge in spending on maintenance loans presented us with fiscal challenges”.

However, in light of the Autumn Statement announcing an abolishment of number controls for UK/EU students at universities in England, Willetts underlined that from 2015/16, there would therefore be no cap on student numbers at APs if they met high standards.

When queried on how this would be assessed, he said that APs with degree granting powers and able to provide “information” would be considered high standard.

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