Strike action in higher education

Public worries privatisation will harm UK universities

19 February 2007 | last updated: 14 December 2015

ASA takes up complaint against private firm's misleading university advert.

Increased privatisation in UK universities would lead to university standards falling and harm Britain's international reputation, according to a YouGov/UCU poll released today.

Asked about the impact of using private companies to provide tuition to students instead of university teachers, half (49%) of the members of the public who expressed an opinion said they believed university standards would fall and three fifths (59%) think that Britain's higher education reputation abroad would be harmed.

The general public is also against any further involvement of private firms in UK universities. Just one in six (17%) said they would like to see an increase in the role of the private sector in UK universities, with over a third (35%) calling for a decrease.

Today's poll comes as a complaint against an INTO job advertisement has been taken up by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advert for an INTO Centre Director at the University of Exeter in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 31 January described INTO as a 'university-led initiative'.

A UCU member complained that the wording of the advert gives the misleading impression that all of the INTO companies are a 'university-led initiative', when in fact the INTO group of companies are neither owned nor controlled by universities. The ASA has taken the complaint up with the advertisers - Smart Public Consultants, who placed the advertisement for INTO - and instructed them to change the advertisement and remove the references in future advertising.

UCU is concerned about the quality of education provided and the impact on the terms and conditions of the staff where private provision replaces that of the institution itself. The union has already learned of instances where private companies, including INTO University Partnerships Ltd, providing academic services to overseas students have tried to recruit less-qualified staff for lower pay.

UCU joint general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Our universities are a public good. The focus of higher education should be to provide a learning environment for students, not an earning environment for privateers. Clearly the public shares our concerns about future quality if privatisation takes hold.

'Private companies that view our universities as cash cows should think again. The public is opposed to them being milked for profit and we are concerned that misleading information may dupe students into paying for a service that is just not up to scratch.

'INTO and others like them should be in little doubt that they are not welcomed by the vast majority of those who work in higher education. UCU will continue to oppose any privatisation of university functions and this survey shows the general public recognises how important it is to keep the market out of higher education.'

The union has written to all vice-chancellors and principals demanding an end to privatisation of key university functions. It has also called on the UK's university umbrella group, Universities UK, and the employers' association, the University and College Employers' Association, to back its call the end of privatisation.

Oxford Brookes University is the latest institution to entertain the idea of signing up with INTO, following the University of Exeter and the University of East Anglia. Newcastle University reported that they had a 'done deal' with INTO, although earlier this month students and staff at the university staged a protest outside a meeting of representatives from INTO and Newcastle University.

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