New consumerist approach to higher education ‘risks sector’s reputation’

The government’s new “consumerist approach” to higher education risks reflecting badly on those higher education institutions that are charities, and could tarnish the whole sector, the Charity Commission was told yesterday.

Steve Egan, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council of England, told the Charity Commission’s public meeting that in the higher education sector, a scandal at one institution tends to contaminate the reputation of the whole sector.

He cited the recent UK Borders Agency decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s licence to educate foreign students, and London School of Economics’ acceptance of a donation from the son of Colonel Gaddafi.

Such stories tend to affect the reputation of all universities, Egan said, and he is worried that the new desire of some higher education institutions to transfer to a for-profit business model – as the College of Law has done – poses risks to those institutions that remain in the charity sector.

Egan explained: “One of the challenges the sector faces is the combination of economic and public benefit motives.  Students have to pay up to £9,000 in tuition fees, the government is promoting for-profit providers of higher education into the marketplace and also promoting an approach which will lead to more of a consumerist approach to higher education.

“How does a charity maintain its purpose and remember that finance is a means to an end, not an end in itself – that’s a challenge.  This and the public benefit requirement is causing all higher education institutes to think about what is their place in the world.”

As well as income volatility, the greater prominence being given to league tables internationally also poses a risk to public trust in the sector.

“And if any of those risks happen, then the whole sector loses trust.  For instance, overseas countries are now incredibly worried about the attitude of this country to overseas students coming here because of the treatment some of their students have had at London Met.”

Egan concluded that a particular challenge for the Charity Commission is, when some charities decide they wish to move to a for-profit model, “what safeguards will the Charity Commission put in place to protect those institutions that remain?”

This article was taken from www.civilsociety.co.uk – http://www.civilsociety.co.uk/governance/news/content/13456