Disappearing ‘providers': how can students be ‘protected’?

A major change of policy is described in the White Paper and the new legislation both published in May 2016 . This will positively encourage the ‘removal’ of unsatisfactory higher education ‘providers’ from the planned official new Register of higher education providers in England.

This will reverse a longstanding policy of supporting a failing higher education provider to help it to put right whatever has been found to be unsatisfactory so that its students may complete their courses and get their qualifications.  For example,  when the Quality Assurance Agency upholds a ‘concern’ it asks the provider to provide an ‘action plan’ and returns in due course to check the results.

The new policy is based on the belief that it is in the interests of encouraging competitions for new providers to be able to enter the sector more quickly and easily as ‘challenger institutions'; and that that will mean others may have to ‘exit’. This ‘market exit’ is described in paras. 33-5 of the White Paper which says that:

The Government should not prevent exit as a matter of policy,


providers will need to have a student protection plan in place, whose objective will be to ensure that students are able to continue to achieve their academic outcomes in the event of the provider not being able to fully deliver their course.

Students affected by the disappearance of their ‘provider’ or the closure of a course they are on are promised ‘support’ and ‘protection’ but detailed arrangements may not be easy to make.  The content of higher education courses is not and cannot be the same everywhere and it would rarely be possible to transfer students elsewhere in the middle of a standardised course, even if the alternative provider had places available and the staff to teach them and was willing to help.

The Tier 4 Highly Trusted Sponsor licence permits a provider to admit international students who are then given student visas. This arrangement has thrown up a number of practical problems in connection with relocating and supporting students affected.

Government has approached the problem which arises when providers lose their Tier 4 status by making active efforts ‘to support affected students and enable genuine students to find another institution at which they can continue their studies in the UK’.  But this has been coupled with also supporting the institution (where appropriate)  to correct its mistakes so that its Tier 4 licence can be restored.

In June 2014, after a Home Office investigation,  57 private providers and three universities had their licences suspended when it was found that there had been cheating in the English language tests which were a requirement for acceptance.  Some had their licences restored later and lost them again for further misconduct.

The Home Office Guidance sets out at length the way in which the sanctions against a provider which has admitted students in error or even dishonestly may affect its students,  but the provisions do not include a detailed discussion of the practical difficulties and the ways they may be addressed.

If the new policy of pointing unsatisfactory providers to the ‘exit’ is to be implemented much more thought needs to be given to the risks to students.



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