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Fighting privatisation in tertiary education

2 February 2007

We have one of the fastest growing private sectors in Europe and the level of private investment in tertiary education in the UK is already far above the EU and OECD averages.

Fighting Privatisation Toolkit The government is committed to opening up the further and higher education sectors to 'new providers', especially those from the private sector.

UCU is opposed to the privatisation of tertiary education. We think that the interests of our members, of the students and parents who are at the heart of education and of the wider society we serve, are best served by an education system that is funded and controlled by the public and that is democratically accountable to the citizens of the UK. Here you can read all about our campaigns against privatisation and download our resources.

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Education is not for profit

The government is committed to de-regulating the higher education sector in favour of private companies, creating what it calls a 'level playing field' for profit-making companies.

UCU has long been concerned that this will remove the academic checks and balances that protect standards in universities, allowing companies whose primary obligation is to their shareholders to drive down costs and opening the door to the kind of mis-selling, recruitment and fraud scandals seen in the USA recently.

Falmouth University to bring on-campus academic staff in-house

June 2023: After a long-running dispute Falmouth University is to bring on-campus academic staff in-house. The move means staff will automatically be enrolled onto the Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS). All new campus-based academic jobs will also be employed directly through the university, rather than a subsidiary company. Falmouth UCU members voted overwhelmingly to resolve the dispute and work constructively with management going forward. 

ALRA drama school goes into liquidation

April 2022: The Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, based in London and Wigan, has announced it is going into liquidation. There was no warning given, and the first that either students or staff heard was a message on 4 April stating that the building was closed and that all staff were redundant from that date on. Secret discussions with the Office for Students (OfS) have led to an offer for students to transfer their studies to Rose Bruford but there was no such consideration for staff. UCU has highlighted the lax regulation of private educational providers: it is yet another stark reminder of the human consequences of government inaction.

Government must bring colleges back into public ownership

September 2020: The government needs to bring colleges back into public ownership and fund them properly, said UCU in response to a report on the financial sustainability of colleges from the National Audit Office: Bring colleges back into public ownership and fund them properly

For-profit college goes into administration

July 2019: UCU responded to the news that England's biggest for profit college has gone into administration by calling on the government to look again at the funding free for all around private providers. Current students will now have to find alternative institutions from September: Controversial for-profit college goes bust leaving staff and students stranded

UCU accuses government of bending over backwards to help for-profit college

November 2018: UCU has accused the government of 'bending over backwards' to support England's biggest for-profit college by letting it continue to access public funding despite officials knowing about its serious financial problems.

Times Higher Education reported that GSM London's recently published accounts reveal it made a net loss of £9.9 million last year, and that £26 million of its debt has been waived as part of a turnaround plan agreed with its private equity owners. Matt Waddup said: This looks like a government bending over backwards to help the profiteers while refusing to back our public universities.

GSM - which featured in a 2017 BBC Panorama investigationinto external recruitment agents used by for-profit colleges - has the highest number of students claiming Student Loans Company funding of any alternative provider in England, with 4,587 students receiving a total of £17 million in loans in 2017-18.

Attempts to stimulate an HE market not working for students or taxpayers

June 2018: Responding to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report on the higher education market, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'The committee's report makes it clear that attempts to stimulate a market in higher education simply aren't working for students or taxpayers. The government's reforms have failed to improve student choice and too many prospective students still find themselves unable to access the learning and support they need. Instead of more tinkering around the edges of this broken system, it's time for a proper overhaul of how education is funded to ensure that everyone can fulfil their potential.'

Consultation on regulatory framework for HE in England

December 2017: UCU's has responded to a Department for Education consultation for the new Office for Students on a new regulatory framework for HE in England, and have highlighted the dangers of a market-led approach to regulation and quality: Securing student success: risk-based regulation for teaching excellence, social mobility and informed choice in higher education: UCU response, Dec 17 [421kb]

Lower graduation rates found at for-profit colleges

October 2017: the rate of students who drop out of their studies at alternative providers of higher education is 15 percentage points higher than the rest of the sector according to a National Audit Office report.

Sally Hunt slams profit motive in HE debate

June 2017: In a debate organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute the HE Festival, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt  argued that for-profit education is bad for students, higher education and the taxpayer.

The 'HIgher Education and Research Bill'

April 2017: The controversial Higher Education and Research Bill completed its passage through parliament on 27 April 2017. MPs and peers agreed to a number of watered down amendments to ensure the bill became law before this parliamentary session ended. Writing in the Huffington Post, Sally Hunt said that in the rush to get it through, the government had managed keep its long-term plans to marketise the sector firmly on track.
The bill will make it easier for new private providers to obtain degree-awarding powers which risks exposing students to low-quality educational experiences at great personal expense. It will also make it easier for more profit-making organisations to move into the market primarily for financial gain, which could see a repeat of scandals at private colleges in the US and the UK.

'Cash-point' colleges

March 2016: Taxpayers and students have already been ripped off for hundreds of millions of pounds, UCU said in response to the proposed higher education bill in this year's Queens Speech which will make access to public funds easier for private providers: UCU response to privatisation plans for HE sector

July 2015: The government would put the UK's proud international reputation for international excellence at serious risk if it pushed through plans to make it easier for private colleges to hand out degrees, UCU warns: Government needs to row back on private college expansion

February 2015: A private college that was one of the main beneficiaries of the government's move to allow for-profit companies access to public funding has been banned from recruiting overseas students: Controversial private college banned from recruiting students

February 2015: The Public Accounts Committee says the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) repeatedly ignored warnings from UCU and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) about the dangers of vast sums of public money being given to for-profit higher education colleges: MPs criticise government for disregarding UCU's repeated warnings on dangers of higher education privatisation

December 2014: An influential group of MPs has torn into the government over its failings to account for public money as it rubber-stamped the expansion of private for-profit colleges. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) held a hearing on 15 December to try and get answers from officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as to why the government had gone ahead with the massive expansion of private education providers without having proper quality checks in place: MPs tear into government over uncontrolled expansion of private colleges

December 2014: Students at alternative higher education providers have claimed taxpayer-backed financial support they were not entitled to and 20% of students were not even properly registered on a course, according to a report into alternative higher education providers released by the National Audit Office (NAO). See: One in five students at alternative higher education colleges was not registered for a course, says NAO report

May 2014: With private colleges are expected to receive around £1bn of public funds next year, there have now been damaging allegations of poor standards, minimal attendance at lectures and suggestions that private colleges are recruiting students simply to access large sums of public money.

The government ignored repeated warnings from UCU from as far back as June 2010 about the lack of proper quality checks at these private institutions.

Calls to speed up investigation into private colleges' access to taxpayers' money

American education dream has become government's nightmare

Watchdog to investigate for-profit colleges' access to millions of pounds of public money

Time has come for proper scrutiny of 'cashpoint colleges'

UCU: Campaigning on the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

January 2014: The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed trade deal between the EU and the US, supposedly being pursued in the interests of free trade. UCU believes that it poses a profound threat to public services in general, including education, leaving them wide open not only to greater privatisation but making it harder for any future government to regulate foreign private sector companies operating in our public services. Click here for more and to download the full campaign briefing.

'Stop recruiting' private colleges told after £80m budget hole revealed

November 2013: UCU has called for an enquiry into the state-funded student loans received by private colleges. This comes after recent press reports that revealed that since earlier  reassurances that spending was under control the figures for outlay of loans will once again have trebled in one year. Embarrassingly, press reports also reveal that the Department has had to write to private providers asking them to stop recruiting students because of the budgetary pressures this is creating. The profit-making providers recruitment spree has left an £80m shortfall in the BIS budget.

Budget blocks VAT tax break for private education providers

UCU cautiously welcomed news in the March 2013 budget that the government has decided against allowing for-profit providers of higher education VAT exemption:
Budget blocks VAT tax break for private education providers

UCU and the National Union of Students (NUS) had earlier written to the minister for universities and science, David Willetts, asking him to block any moves to grant for-profit providers of education exemption from VAT.
Pressure builds on government to block VAT tax break for private education providers
VAT: extending exemption to for-profit providers of Higher Education, UCU consultation response [112kb]

UCU calls on Cable to halt plans to make BPP a university

UCU wrote to the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills calling on him not to award BPP university status, following the news that its sister institution, the University of Phoenix had been put on probation by its accrediting agency. Probation is second only to losing accreditation completely, a move that would effectively destroy Phoenix, its parent company Apollo and, its financially dependent subsidiary BPP. Given this and the fact that accreditors raised issued about Phoenix's insufficient autonomy from Apollo, UCU has demanded that the Secretary of State stop any plans to grant BPP university title.

UCU demands inquiry into trebling of taxpayers' money for private colleges

December 2012: UCU wrote to the Public Accounts Committee asking for an inquiry into the trebling of taxpayers' money going to private providers of higher education in just one year.

Private colleges now receive over £100m of public money, despite the fact that they are not subject to the same regulation as public universities. Private providers do not have to observe controls on the number of students they recruit, nor do they have to collect information about recruitment figures or completion rates.

Amount of money paid to private colleges through unregulated courses has trebled in one year and now exceeds £100m

  • Number of students studying with private colleges on unregulated courses has doubled in one year
  • 23% of the total public money captured by one provider - Greenwich School of Management - owned by private equity fund Sovereign Capital
  • Sovereign Capital's founder advises the government on public sector reform
  • Greenwich School of Management were banned from recruiting stranded foreign London Metropolitan University students after a poor inspection from the Quality Assurance Agency

Inquiry call press release

77% rise in 'unregulated' private HE courses:

July 2012: The Times Higher and the BBC both reported on revelations that the government has approved over 400 degree and diploma courses at private universities for taxpayer funding in 2011/12 without checking on the quality of courses offered by providers or student completion rates.
UCU response
Times Higher report
BBC news report

Government unveils new plans for private universities:

June 2012: The government said it will limit the number of students private university providers can recruit and that it will review the quality of courses offered by for-profit education companies.
Government unveils new rules for private universities

Government has no idea on private universities' course completion rates

May 2012: UCU wrote to the universities minister, David Willetts, calling for urgent changes to the way the government regulates private higher education providers after the government admitted that it is not monitoring course standards or student completion rates despite handing over £33 million of taxpayers' money to private companies in the last year: Government admits it has no idea on private universities' course completion rates

UCU raises concerns over standards at for-profit companies

UCU said on 23 February 2012 that it had grave concerns after the Quality Assurance Agency admitted to Times Higher Education that it had no knowledge of the teaching quality at two-thirds of private for-profit companies operating with state support.

UCU's campaign against the White Paper

UCU ran a highly successful campaign against the government's proposed higher education bill in 201. Thanks in large part to UCU and our allies, the government abandoned its planned legislation. However, it is now attempting to introduce as many reforms as possible without democratic scrutiny. Of course, we're fighting them all the way.

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UCU published reports

'Lost in Translation': a UCU report on the privatisation of colleges and universities:

The government's policies to deregulate the further and higher education sectors are not only making it easier for for-profit providers to enter the 'market', they are also transforming the way that our established institutions and employers finance themselves, organise their activities and behave.

Please contact UCU for further information about this document.

  • analyses the way in which the new de-regulated post-secondary education market is affecting our colleges and universities,
  • surveys the ways in which institutions are reshaping themselves,
  • examines the impact on staff, students and public assets and
  • indicates what must be done to protect the public interest in high-quality post-secondary education.

Public service or portfolio investment: how private equity funds are taking over post-secondary education

The UK risks becoming embroiled in serious financial scandals if private equity firms 'circling education' are not proper regulated, warns a new UCU report: Regulation needed to stem influx of private equity firms in education

High cost, high debt, high risk

UCU briefing on the dangers of allowing the growth of a for-profit sector similar to that in the US: High cost, high debt, high risk: UCU briefing on the for-profit education sector, Aug 11 [178kb]

Subprime education? A report on the growth of private providers and the crisis of UK higher education [102kb]

Challenging the market in further education: a briefing on the rise of the private sector in adult and vocational learning [218kb]

Challenging the market in education - Marketisation and the growth of the private sector in tertiary education: a preliminary report, Jul 10 [255kb]

Privatising our universities - A UCU report on the new cross-party consensus and the Americanisation of UK higher education, Feb 10 [162kb]

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Local campaigns against privatisation

UCU has a proud history of fighting privatisation of our colleges and universities. This fight is becoming bigger under the Coalition government. The government's cuts to funding, their promotion of competition and their attempts to de-regulate the sector in favour of new for-profit providers are all combining to heighten competitive pressures on institutions. What we are seeing as a result, UCU would argue, is the internal recomposition of our colleges and universities around a privatised model of service delivery - the internal privatisation of our post-secondary education system.

As the government hands out subsidies and tax breaks to the private sector, while removing the regulatory checks and balances that underpin quality, it is effectively rigging its quasi-market in favour of those providers with access to the capital markets to fund aggressive expansion. As it does so, it is placing huge pressure on university and college managements to ape private sector modes of delivery and even private sector company forms merely to stay alive. Unfortunately, short-sighted principals and vice chancellors have not yet learnt the lesson that they need to join in the defence of public education.

The government's de-regulatory agenda and UCU's response

This PowerPoint presentation gives an overview of the government's de-regulatory agenda and indicates the impact of de-regulation on the way in which universities and colleges will behave. It also maps out UCU's national and local response.

University of Gloucestershire pulls out of INTO deal
July 2014: The University of Gloucestershire's joint venture with for-profit firm INTO has fallen apart. Gloucestershire's vice-chancellor Stephen Marston announced that the deal was off due to a lack of 'common ground', the Times Higher reports. In late 2012, when the tie-up was first mooted, UCU labelled the potential deal as unnecessary and risky.

SUCCESS: University of York says no to INTO
UCU welcomed the news that the University of York decided not to pursue its planned joint venture with the private equity-backed for profit company INTO University Partnerships. The local UCU branch at York had campaigned strongly to persuade the university that a joint venture with INTO was too risky. You can read our latest briefing on INTO here. INTO: Why you should be worried about a joint venture between York and INTO, Mar 14 [36kb]

SUCCESS: UCLan not proceeding with INTO
The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) announced in April 2013 that it will not be proceeding with a proposal to convert the university into a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG): UCLan rejects private university plans. UCU and UNISON had led protests against the move and raised fears that the institution could become a for-profit enterprise selling off university assets and inviting investment from private equity funds.

Falmouth FX

March 2013: About 130 employees at Falmouth University, are set to be transferred to a company jointly owned by Falmouth and the University of Exeter known as Falmouth Exeter Plus (FX Plus). UCU and GMB are campaigning to protect the staff employed at this shared services company.

Read more about Falmouth FX here.

Campaign at Sussex

March 2013: At the University of Sussex, the occupation by students in support of the 235 staff facing outsourcing to a private company continues. Find out more about the occupation here.

The students have called a demonstration on the campus on Monday 25 March. Find out more on their Facebook site.

February 2013: Many of you will have seen that the campaign against outsourcing at Sussex has accelerated in the last week. The unions issued a call for the University Council to convene an emergency to subject the proposals to proper scrutiny before it's too late and on 7 February, following a demonstration on the campus, a group of students occupied Bramber House conference centre. UCU General secretary Sally Hunt issued a statement calling on the University to exercise restraint and focus on talking to the unions and the students:

Sally's statement: 'The University administration is attempting to unilaterally drive through a deeply unpopular and flawed reform, without proper consultation or assessment of alternative solutions. We stand with our members in their struggle to safeguard the working conditions of staff at Sussex and to uphold the idea of a public university.

Therefore we thank students for their support. We support the right to peaceful protest and we believe the University should focus on responding to calls from staff unions and the students' union to resolve this.'

Read the branch's call for an emergency council here. [77kb]

Send a message of support to the students by emailing Ed Bailey and we will forward it on.

19 November 2012: Staff and students at the University of Sussex are protesting at plans to privatise the university's catering, facilities and estates department. Members of UCU, Unite and UNISON joined students to demonstrate against changes that will result in 235 members of staff having their jobs outsourced. See: UCU news story.

letter to Sussex council members [60kb]
report produced for Sussex council members [82kb]

Sussex: Proposed outsourcing - an update, Feb 13 [77kb]

London Metropolitan University shelves major outsourcing plan

25 October 2012: London Metropolitan University has shelved a major outsourcing and shared services project in the wake of the loss of its licence to recruit overseas students, as internal papers reveal fears of financial instability. Under the shared services/outsourcing contract, worth £74 million over five years, all London Met services bar teaching would have been provided by an external company: Outsourcing plan hits the wall, THE

London Metropolitan University in talks to privatise support services

Privatisation under the spotlight at De Montfort University

November 2011: After months of management secrecy over a proposed joint venture with private company INTO University Partnerships, UCU activists at De Montfort University put privatisation under the spotlight with a public intervention at the Mayor's visit to campus on 8 November. Staff spoke directly to the Mayor and local councillors and distributed leaflets explaining the union's concerns about a deal with INTO and the threat it poses to the quality of education at DMU. This latest action is part of the branch's fantastic campaign against privatisation at the university which also saw a mass lobby of the board of governors meeting last month.

Read the DMU leaflets:

DMU UCU’s: 'stop privatisation at De Montfort University' leaflet [85kb]
DMU UCU’s campaign against privatisation [28kb]

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Private companies in post-secondary education

Company profiles

Private company stories

New College of Humanities only recruits 60 students

21 September 2012: AC Grayling's £18,000-a-year New College of Humanities has not filled any of its courses ahead of next week's opening. Only 60 students, less than a third of NCH's original target, are expected to take up places this term. See the Guardian for more.

A4e to be investigated over education and skills contracts

May 2012: The beleaguered welfare-to-work company A4e is to be investigated for potential fraud over the running of its skills and education contracts. Sally Hunt, repeated her calls for A4e to be disqualified from running new £30m prison education.

Private equity firm Montagu Private Equity buys charitable College of Law

April 2012: UCU has said the government needed to act urgently to protect UK universities and public assets from private equity firms after the College Of Law was sold off to Montagu Private Equity. The union warned that the sale of the charitable College of Law - one of only five private providers in the UK with degree-awarding powers - could see more private equity firms move in and attempt to purchase UK universities: Private equity firm buys right to sell university degrees

Remove scandal-hit A4e from prison contract process

De-regulation, corporate form and the privatisation of higher education: a presentation [224kb]

March 2012: UCU calls on the government not to award A4e new prison education contracts in London and the east of England as fresh revelations of potential fraud risk bringing offender learning into 'disrepute': A4e must not be awarded new prison education contracts

BPP boss admits class sizes will rise as it looks to expand

The head of UK for-profit group BPP has admitted that class sizes will rise as it looks to expand across the country. In an interview with this week's Times Higher Education, Carl Lygo said some student:staff ratios could reach 30:1. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'BPP's belief that student:staff ratios of 30:1 are acceptable shows the pressure their American owners Apollo are now putting them under to deliver big profits from UK higher education.' Read more in the Times Higher.

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Last updated: 21 June 2024