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Nick Clegg responds to rumbling Liberal Democrat revolt on university privatisation

27 July 2011

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UCU said today it was pleased that Nick Clegg has taken up the issue of university privatisation with the government, amid growing pressure from Liberal Democrat backbenchers.

In a letter to constituents*, Nick Clegg said he acknowledged the concerns of Liberal Democrat MPs over government plans to introduce American-style private competition into higher education and had taken the issue up with education secretary Michael Gove.

The union said it hopes the deputy prime minister will also bring the issue up with universities minister David Willetts, who has university privatisation in his portfolio.

Nineteen Liberal Democrat MPs, including former party leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, have signed a cross-party early day motion (EDM)**, which raises concerns about the growth in the number of for-profit higher education providers.

The EDM, which has the support of 116 MPs in total, points to the ongoing US investigations into the recruitment and admissions practices of for-profit universities. These include the University of Phoenix, which is owned by the same parent company as UK private provider BPP, which was granted private university college status in the UK last year.

In December, the government was nearly defeated over its plans to triple tuition fees following a rebellion by 21 Lib Dem MPs.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'MPs from all parties, including the deputy prime minister, have expressed concerns about the government's plans for university privatisation. Tellingly, half the Liberal Democrat backbenchers have voiced their concerns about the issue and the government needs to start listening to avoid an NHS-style PR disaster.

'The privatisation plans endanger the quality and global reputation of UK universities and would see private companies getting rich at the expense of the taxpayer.  In the US, on which the government has modelled its plans, for-profit universities and colleges have been investigated for the mis-selling of qualifications to vulnerable students and their families. That is the last thing we need here.'

*Nick Clegg's letter to constituents:

Many thanks for your letter to Nick Clegg MP regarding Early Day Motion 1999 on profit-seeking companies in higher education. Nick has asked me to reply to you on his behalf and thank you for your comments

Unfortunately, due to parliamentary convention, party leaders do not sign non-legislative EDMs and therefore Nick will not be able to sign EDM 1999. However, this EDM has been supported by Liberal Democrat MP's
(sic) including Greg Mulholland and Tessa Munt amongst others.

The Liberal Democrats believe in a system based on excellence, underpinned by freedom and fairness: an education system which challenges low aspiration and achievement.

I have taken up your issue with Michael Gove and will be happy to forward you copies of any correspondence I receive.

Thank you once again for writing to us. Please do not hesitate to contact the office again on any matter.

Yours Sincerely,
Nick Clegg MP

**The EDM text and a full list of signatories can be found here. 


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