Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Carl Lygo, Chief Executive Officer of BPP, on Tuesday 24 April.
By Dale Bassett
The ongoing controversy about AC Grayling’s profit-making £18,000-a-year college reveals, in the eyes of critics, all that is wrong with the private sector’s growing role in higher education. But for almost 40 years, business and law school BPP has been showing what’s possible. The company was granted degree-awarding powers in 2007 and designated a University College in 2010. While universities across the country trebled their tuition fees, BPP set theirs at a market-beating rate of £5,000 a year. Given the Government’s intention to increase private sector involvement in HE, Reform asked BPP’s chief executive Carl Lygo to lead a discussion, held under the Chatham House Rule, on the merits of profit in the university sector.
The discussion revealed the extent to which the private sector is involved in higher education and the number of different routes to market; this is not just about private colleges offering their own provision. Joint ventures and partnerships with traditional universities are allowing private companies to improve universities’ value for money and spur innovation. Service providers are doing everything from managing real estate to providing access routes for international students. From back office shared services through curriculum development to the front line of teaching, the private sector is boosting diversity and quality in the higher education sector.
The strong brand of UK higher education is undoubtedly an attraction for companies looking to invest in the sector. It was agreed that there is significant foreign capital that investors are keen to bring into the UK HE sector. But the barriers to investment are such that the UK is missing out on lots of this potential investment. The market is such that it is not straightforward for private investors to inject large amounts of capital into the sector.
This comes to the heart of the problem that currently exists in UK higher education. While everyone around the table agreed that greater private sector involvement and thus diversity in the sector is in principle a good thing, the lack of a level playing field is having negative consequences for investment, for private providers and for traditional universities. In the absence of a Bill to follow up from last year’s White Paper, it remains extremely difficult for new institutions to obtain degree-awarding powers. Publicly funded universities, meanwhile, remain subject to caps on fees and student numbers, as well as regulatory requirements tied to public funding from which private institutions are exempt.
Government, then, must help to level the playing field. Removing caps on places and fees would allow traditional universities to compete with their private sector peers who have no restrictions in these areas. Private universities could be given the same access to government student loans as their public counterparts – with the quid pro quo that they are subject to the same regulatory framework. These changes would allow for a much more effective market, with public and private institutions competing on the same footing. The result would be more growth, investment and diversity in the sector, to the benefit of students and UK plc.
Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Simon Peyton-Jones, chair of Computing at School and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, on Thursday 22 March.
By Dale Bassett
On 11 January, Michael Gove announced a consultation on withdrawing the National Curriculum statutory programme of study for information and communication technology (ICT). Although teaching the subject would remain compulsory throughout pupils’ time in schools, teachers would be able to decide what to teach and how to teach it. The Education Secretary argued that the current curriculum was in many cases not delivering a high-quality education preparing pupils for further study or careers in computing, and that a government-prescribed programme of study would always be out of date:
“In an open-source world. Why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document? A statement of priorities frozen in time; a blunt instrument landing with a thunk on teachers’ desks and updated only centrally and only infrequently?”
A Reform roundtable seminar, led by Simon Peyton-Jones, chair of the Computing at School working group and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, set out to discuss how a decentralised ICT curriculum could be delivered in practice, and how schools could be incentivised and supported to deliver innovative, high-quality and relevant ICT and computer science.
The key theme emerging from the discussion was that simply removing the compulsory programme of study will not automatically mean that every school will adopt a really good ICT and computer science curriculum. Schools respond to incentives – particularly league tables – and it was felt that many schools could perceive the changes as a “downgrade” to the status of ICT and so might prioritise other subjects, unless school leaders were bought in to its importance.
High status was also thought to be important for teacher recruitment. Few computing teachers are specialists, and a perception of decreased importance would likely discourage computer science graduates from entering teaching. There is also a risk around employability: if headteachers are focused on other areas of the curriculum they might be less inclined to hire ICT teachers, leading to fewer jobs and so further discouraging specialists to enter teaching.
Despite these threats, those around the table also clearly felt the changes present opportunities to improve the teaching of computing in schools. It was agreed that there is some extremely good ICT teaching currently happening in schools. These teachers could easily adapt to teach new, more rigorous computer science qualifications. But to ensure excellent computing teaching is happening in every school, teachers must be supported with high quality professional development and curriculum materials. Groups such as Computing at School have an important role here, and it was suggested that universities could help local schools to strengthen their expertise in computer science.
Perhaps most importantly, many of the participants saw a bright future for children wanting to study computer science. Computing and technology are, after all, some of the most exciting aspects of 21st-century life; young children’s use of technology completely eclipses that of children just a few years ago. The computing industry must take the lead in ensuring that pupils – and their parents – are aware of the plethora of stimulating career opportunities available in the field, and that they understand how to get there.