African adventure for Buckingham

More international adventures

An interesting piece in Times Higher Education about what many might see as a surprising international venture for the University of Buckingham:

Buckingham already has similar arrangements with institutions in Singapore and Sarajevo, while other UK universities have foreign campuses in places ranging from Dubai to China, but East Africa represents new ground.

Martin O’Hara, vice-chancellor of Victoria and former vice-rector of the National University of Rwanda, told Times Higher Education that the new private institution would “provide what is needed in the public sector”, namely “high quality at a good price”.

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Victoria is expecting to enrol 200-300 students on undergraduate courses in the coming academic year.

Buckingham will offer BScs in business and management, business and management with information systems, accounting and financial management, and computing, while Victoria is accrediting bachelor’s degrees in nursing and in science in public health.

The Buckingham degrees will normally be priced at US$7,000 (£4,423) a year, although for those enrolling in the first year, Victoria is offering a 50 per cent discount.

Five years from now, Victoria aims to have 4,000 students on its books, Professor O’Hara said, adding that the institution has long-term plans to expand this figure to between 12,000 and 15,000, with additional courses potentially including medicine.

It’s not entirely clear from the piece what the nature of the relationship is. Is it validation, franchise or joint venture? And what is the role of Edulink, the partner organisation which seems to have put up the capital?

Perhaps the most surprising factor here is the Buckingham strategy. Whilst it might be imagined that, with a White paper creating arguably much more favourable environment in England for institutions such as Buckingham, they would be focusing on new domestic opportunities rather than looking for international developments. But, as the piece notes, Buckingham already has other international partnerships in Singapore and Sarajevo so perhaps it isn’t such a novelty.

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It does seem that the proposition does have Ministerial support too (picture is from a signing ceremony in March 2011 involving Buckingham and Edulink).

Will it succeed? Will Buckingham’s reputation be enhanced by the arrangement? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Are private universities ‘a huge threat to academic standards’?

Problems with privates

According to a piece in the Telegraph private universities represent ‘a huge threat to academic standards’. This follows the award of the University College title to BPP College and the line comes from UCU:

More than nine in ten professors believe encouraging more private companies to become universities would be a mistake, the University and College Union (UCU) said. In a survey of 504 professors, the union found that 96.2 per cent opposed plans to make it easier for private companies to become universities. A call by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, to increase the role of the private sector in higher education represents “a huge threat to academic freedom and standards,” it said.

The UCU expressed concerns that private companies are not subjected to the same scrutiny as universities, and have no “tradition of academic freedom.”

An entirely contrary view is offered by via Geoffrey Alderman in the Guardian. Alderman argues that private universities are no threat to academic standards:

All of us who want the maintenance of appropriate academic standards and a robust student learning experience in British higher education must welcome the news that the BPP College of Professional Studies has been designated as a “university college” – the first wholly privately funded university institution to be established in the UK since the establishment of Buckingham University College – now the University of Buckingham – in 1976.

Given that Alderman is employed by the University of Buckingham his views are perhaps unsurprising. But what is the issue here? Are private universities really a threat to academic standards? The question is, of course, a ludicrous one. The arrival of new privately funded institutions will not, in itself, have any bearing on the academic standards set at existing institutions. Nor will standards set by such private universities necessarily be lower than those of other universities, just different. What will be interesting to see though is the broader impact private providers will have on publicly funded universities. The government clearly believes that the introduction of this kind of competition for students into the HE marketplace will force everyone to raise their game and lead to better quality of provision at lower cost. This is theoretically possible but what about reality?

Buckingham and BPP do seem able successfully to recruit students (although given the huge demand for limited university places this is not a surprise) and the former has enjoyed some success in national league tables but the standing of their graduates in the jobs market will be a key determinant of their success in the longer term. So, private universities may not have a direct impact on academic standards but if they succeed in recruiting good staff, well-qualified students and produce highly employable graduates then they will begin to offer real competition for publicly funded institutions. Will everyone else then begin to copy the private providers? We’ll see.

2010 Independent League Table

Latest Independent league table

First of the new season’s UK tables has just been published by the Independent.

Full details of the institutional and subject rankings are provided by the Complete University Guide which can be found here. There isn’t much change at the top but the most striking thing is the inclusion for the first time in a UK league table (I think) of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s first private university.

Rankings (2009 rank in brackets)

    1 (1) Oxford
    2 (2) Cambridge
    3 (3) Imperial College London
    4 (5) Durham
    5 (4) London School of Economics>
    6 (7) St Andrews
    7 (6) Warwick
    8 (12) Lancaster
    9 (8) University College London
    10 (10) York
    11 (11) Edinburgh
    12 (9) Bath
    13 (17) King’s College London
    14 (13) Southampton
    15 (15) SOAS
    16 (16) Bristol
    17 (14) Aston
    18 (19) Nottingham
    19 (25) Sussex
    20 (–) Buckingham

Also, the Complete University Guide people let you play with the weightings for each of the criteria, so it is possible to bump Oxbridge from the top slots if you really try.