This week, we interview Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive of Study UK, the association of independent FE and HE institutions and specialist training providers, about private sector education in the UK, trends and government legislation.


Overall, what benefits can international students enjoy at UK independent providers, as opposed to at public institutions?

Independent providers have been attracting young and adult learners to the UK since the 1980s, and many still specialise in educating students from overseas. As a result, they know how to pay close attention to the needs of international students, who may not be used to studying in English and who may also be living away from their families for the first time.

In contrast to many campus universities, independent colleges are typically located right in the centre of town, and with excellent transport links so that their students also have easy access to the UK’s many tourist attractions. They offer a welcoming, diverse atmosphere, often with more closely tailored pastoral care and academic support than is possible at large, publicly funded universities and further education colleges.

While the independent sector is notable for its diversity, further advantages frequently include:

•Smaller class sizes, allowing more individual contact time with lecturers and tutors

•A more flexible path to gaining UK qualifications, tailored to the needs of each student, and with more flexible entry requirements, course start dates and modes of study

•Considerably lower fees than comparable programmes at public universities and FE colleges

•Well-developed facilities for the English language tuition, academic and pastoral support essential for international students to succeed

What are some of the disadvantages of studying at UK independent providers, and how is Study UK helping to counter them?

Undoubtedly, a major disappointment for some older students will be not being able to work part time or during the holidays if they choose an independent college. This rule was introduced by the Home Office in 2011 and has drawn a growing chorus of critics since. Study UK has worked hard to highlight the unfairness of this policy and has been quietly winning support for a change amongst MPs from all parties, as well as from education sector bodies including UKCISA and the NUS. A clear, fair and attractive deal for international students is one of the key principles informing Study UK’s Manifesto of recommendations for the new government in 2015. It is worth bearing in mind also that some independent providers specialise in providing a more intensive academic timetable – for instance delivering a bachelor’s degree in two rather than three years – with teaching all year round. Students on these programmes will want to focus on their studies rather than fit in paid work around them, so the visa rules may be less of a consideration than they would otherwise appear.

Independent colleges of higher education often specialise in a particular subject area or discipline, which enables them to focus on providing excellent tuition from experts in their field or industry. This does mean however that any one university will likely provide a broader range of available courses than a single independent college – luckily, there are many colleges to choose from! Also, students who have their heart set on university will often benefit from beginning their UK education with an independent provider. This could either be an independent sixth form college, which combine a high level of one-to-one and small-group tuition with a greater degree of independence than pupils at a traditional boarding school, or it could be one of the excellent international study centres (such as those run by INTO, Kaplan, Navitas or Study Group) embedded within dozens of university campuses throughout the UK, which offer a fast track for international students to adjust to UK university life.

Some private colleges in the UK target international students by awarding degrees accredited by public universities. Would you say that this is a growing trend?

UK universities have entered into mutually beneficial academic partnerships with independent colleges for decades now and they show no signs of stopping. This can be particularly rewarding in the case of specialist colleges (incorporating the creative arts, religious education and professional disciplines), who are careful to select university partners which can provide the right level of academic support and resources for particular courses. For example, the BA (Hons) in Theology at Spurgeon’s College has been validated by the University of Manchester, while the college also enjoys a collaborative partnership with the University of Chester focusing specifically on its research degrees.

Other independent colleges choose instead to offer more flexible pathways into higher education. These might begin with a vocational or professional certificate for one year at level 4, perhaps progress onto a Higher National Diploma at level 5 for the second year, and students then have the option of staying with the college or transferring to one of its partner universities for a third year ‘top-up’ degree. This means that students who succeed and complete their studies are able to obtain the greatly prized bachelor’s degree with honours, but do not need to commit all the time and money required for a three-year degree course from the outset – they will also earn valuable qualifications in their own right after each stage, and can gradually build up their confidence and the key academic skills of independent learning and critical thinking.

Roughly what percentage of students at Study UK member schools are international? Has this changed in recent years, and why? Do you expect a change in the future?

This varies really considerably. Some members are 100 per cent international, such as the university-embedded colleges and international study centres. Others focus almost entirely on UK higher education students who are eligible for publicly backed student loans. Most Study UK members fall somewhere in between. There has been a noticeably increased focus on attracting both UK and European students since 2011 and the tightening of restrictions in the Tier 4 student visa route, and in the case of higher education of course European students who are resident in the UK can also access student loans to help them cover the up-front costs of studying.

We expect that independent providers of higher education will continue to grow their share of the market for UK students, and to compete with universities for the best European students as well.

Successive layers of Home Office regulation have had a stifling effect on the ability of the UK to compete internationally for student share, and of independent providers to compete with their publicly funded counterparts. We are optimistic that both of these issues will be addressed by the next government, and we have a clear sense of what needs to done in order to do so: more policy stability through real co-regulation by the Home Office, education sector and BIS; a streamlined and consistent visa application experience; greater opportunities for post-study work experience; and the equal treatment of international students no matter where in the UK they choose to study.

What are your predictions for the future of independent education in the UK?

The past few years have seen extensive changes to the regulatory framework for independent providers, but they have been introduced in a piecemeal fashion and without consistent oversight from a single government department. Study UK’s Manifesto calls for primary legislation (a Higher Education Bill) to strengthen and consolidate these changes, and we will continue to press all political parties to support the drafting, debate and implementation of such a bill in the next parliament. We believe that new legislation will be key to ensuring that the regulatory system is fit for purpose, is built to meet the needs of a modern and heterogeneous HE sector, and effectively promotes competition between providers in the educational quality, innovation and value for money of their provision.

But despite the challenges, we have great expectations for the potential of independent providers in the UK. This diverse assortment of institutions large and small, old and new, are capable of constant innovation in their delivery and a singular focus on student satisfaction. They are now widely recognised as an essential part of the educational fabric of our country, and with a fit-for-purpose regulatory framework in place to protect standards without restraining progress, more and more students from the UK and abroad will find that an independent provider delivers the tailored experience and academic support they have been searching for.


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