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Academic community warns against expansion of for-profit universities

7 December 2011

In a letter to this morning's Daily Telegraph almost 500 academics have warned against government plans to allow for-profit companies to play a bigger role in UK higher education.

The letter, signed by 471 leading members of the academy, warns against giving for-profit companies substantial access to taxpayers' money through publicly-subsidised loans and allowing companies, including private equity firms, to acquire struggling universities.

The signatories, which include the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) Sally Hunt, the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford Professor Martin Hall, two former principals of Oxford colleges Alan Ryan and David Marquand and 10 emeritus professors, say the government must learn from America where for-profit companies have been embroiled in scandals over the mis-selling of degrees.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: "People across the political spectrum care passionately about maintaining UK universities' hard won international reputation and this letter from so many eminent professors shows that those responsible for building our strong academic reputation have grave doubts about the government's proposals.

"The experience of for-profit universities in the US has been a disaster for the taxpayer with public subsidies soaring while completion rates have fallen. I hope ministers will now listen to those on all sides who say protecting the interests of students and securing academic standards are more important than acting as the laboratory for an experiment which risks harming our country's reputation at home and abroad."

The letter in full:

We are deeply concerned about the Government's proposals for higher education, which would give private, for-profit companies substantial access to publicly subsidised loans and would allow companies, including private equity firms, to acquire struggling universities.

The record of private equity firms in delivering public services is exemplified by the recent debacle at Southern Cross. In the United States, the higher education system the Government is now trying to emulate, the private sector is well established, with students and taxpayers suffering the consequences.

For-profit companies offer derisory graduation rates, crushing levels of debts and degrees of dubious value. According to the US Education Trust, only 20 per cent of students at for-profit colleges complete a four-year course and the same proportion of those who do finish default on their loans within three years.

US private companies recruit just 10 per cent of students, but they consume 25 per cent of government-backed loans. To allow institutions driven by the pursuit of short-term shareholder value to get a foothold in higher education will be to condemn generations of students to a similar future, while the taxpayer will pick up the cost.

Letter text and full list of signatories [299kb]

Last updated: 11 December 2015