Saturday, March 10, 2012

Defining Standards in Independent Higher Ed Sector: 1

This is the best and the worst of time for Independent colleges in the UK. Never before the sector has seen so much investor interest, given its long term potential. At the same time, it has never been subject to such harsh regulation, and a complete transformation of the marketplace in such a short span of time. Many independent colleges closed down since October 2011; some others were forced to close by UK Border Agency. Some others are still going on in the hope that their Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status with UK Border Agency will help them garner a price in the ongoing M&A activities in the sector. Once this illusion is dispelled, which it will be in a few months time, there will be even more closures.

At this time, pretending that everything is just the same is an act of madness. While the shape of change is somewhat unclear and emergent at this moment, it is certain that things are going to change, and the sector needs to prepare for it. Some of these changes are relatively easy to anticipate, like that the sector will be dominated by companies of certain size and scale, and that the ownership structure of the sector - currently dominated by owner-operators - is going to change.This is expected to change the industry - the new Professional Managers will surely seek to establish different operating practises and scale up the businesses adequately which was not possible earlier - but it will take some time to build the students' confidence in the sector. I suspect even when the colleges meet the regulatory criteria of UK Border Agency and its other requirements, the sector will still have to work hard to earn the students' trust, both locally and globally.

Despite the trend towards consolidation, very little is being so far done towards this. The only way to gain credibility and trust is to create an effective regulatory system and fully submit to it. The regulatory system that Independent colleges submitted to so far was ineffective, and the proposed system of dual control through UK Border Agency Highly Trusted Sponsor Status, which focuses on how the colleges manage their international students, and review by Quality Assurance Agency, which involves how the colleges service the students, fail to go beyond the surface. Besides, the starting point of both these regulatory regimes is compliance to the system, mainly from an immigration control point of view, and it will leave out critical issues like the continuity and stability of the institution, relevance and currency of its curriculum and deliverable, and employability and progression of the students it taught. In a way, the requirements set by the current regulatory regime is based on a mistaken assumption that the independent sector will only ever service the international students, and is triggered by the presumption that every independent college is a 'visa college' indeed.

I am not suggesting that these requirements are meaningless - surely a college needs to recruit the right students and manage them adequately - but this kind of regulation is unlikely to generate any student confidence in the sector. In fact, once the dust settles - as it will at the end of 2012 - having an UKBA Highly Trusted Sponsor status and 'Confidence' in the limited review that QAA will carry out, will be like having access to electricity. It will be necessary, but no longer sufficient for survival. Further, these are not any excellence benchmarks anyway and will fall short of the expectations of the students, who are information savvy and demanding anyway.

This effectively means that the sector must set independent benchmarks and create a system of self-regulation, which must, given the severity of the problem, go beyond the cosmetic and offer substantial guarantees and safeguards to the students, local or international. This may mean creating some sort of guarantee for the students in case of an institutional failure, a reality in independent sector, which could be done through collaborative arrangements and collective insurance. This should also lead to the establishment of a code of practise, covering areas like how the agents are rewarded, a body to arbitrate student complaints, an ethical standard for public information and also how the academic staff is employed and rewarded. Indeed, one may go beyond and create awards and benchmarks for quality systems and performance standards, but this will surely follow.

Being at the sharp end, I feel the necessity of doing this immediately and effectively. However, the sector is fragmented and the practises are still quite immature. Besides, there are very few independent colleges who may end up on the other side of the tunnel, and hence, this may all become a question of timing. However, one thing is certain - the independent college sector must now aspire to go beyond the minimum and set standards of expectation for itself.

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