Recently the UCU union has informed me and other colleagues of an interesting and controversial development in the higher education sector of the UK…the possibility of setting up new ‘international colleges’ based at universities but run by a private company. The union is concerned that this might be ‘stealth’ privatization but what could it actually mean for students and lecturers?
I knew nothing about this myself and while I am not the most informed persona about political and strategic matters relating to higher education, I was surprised this is not more of a ‘hot topic’! The company involved is IBT education, now known as Navitas. If you’re interested you can have a look at their website here. You will see that they are unashamedly corporate in focus. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to think through what this could mean for universities in the UK.
There are already four of these ‘international colleges’, at Swansea, Hertfordshire, Brunel and Anglia Ruskin. The idea is that independently they recruit overseas students onto diploma courses and then ‘guarantee’ (according to the UCU anyway) a place on the university’s full degree programme. So, in some ways this is a good thing… opening the university system up to new, highly qualified overseas applicants who contribute a great deal to the culture of the institution is to be lauded. Not forgetting of course that overseas students are seen by our cash-starved universities as a very important revenue stream.
As a lecturer it’s slightly worrying for me that students are being guaranteed entry onto the degree programme, seemingly bypassing the needs of individual departments, admissions tutors, language tutors and so on all of whom are currently involved when an overseas student applies to one of our courses. Not only that, but at a more fundamental level costs and rights of the private company versus the university must be decided: who will have jurisdiction over things like terms and conditions of employment, who will be paying for the use of university facilities/support staff and so on.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has experience working with or in one of these private colleges as to how the relationship worked. And for the rest of us…should we be concerned at these developments, or do we need to drag ourselves into the ‘real world’ of the 21st century? More questions than answers in my post this week I am afraid…but I think that reflects the uncertain times our profession is entering.