BPP Holdings plc (BPP), Europe’s leading provider of professional education, announced on the 24th September that its subsidiary, BPP College of Professional Studies (BPP College) has been granted degree awarding powers. The grant will allow BPP College to award qualifications including undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the UK. This is the first for profit private sector company to have been awarded such powers to enter what is regarded as a very substantial and profitable market. This story has hit the headlines of the UK newspapers concerned with education and investment, while shares in BPP Holdings plc went up 13% overnight.
This decision by the Privy Council in the UK follows a three year full scale review and inspection by the Quality Review Agency (QAA). This process of review covered BPP College’s organization, governance and management, as well as quality assurance processes. While GlobalHigherEd is aware of the review procedures, it has not managed to sight the review report.
BPP College plans to offer post graduate courses in business and law related subjects – including financial and actuarial services, finance and marketing from September 2008. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the market for business and law-related post graduate studies involves around 120,000 students in the UK, with a significant component paying full foreign fees. However, from 2009 BPP College plans to move into the undergraduate market, targeting undergraduate students who will be expected to pay around £10,000 to study at one of its UK-based colleges. BPP estimates that the market size for Business and Law post graduate degrees being at least £800m per annum.
This development is likely to send shivers through the higher education sector which, to date, has seen private companies (including international) operating, but never on a ‘for-profit basis’. The question is, does it matter? Will quality be assured? Will salaries go down? Where will the profit margins come from in this highly competitive market? Further, how will BPP position itself in relation to other global players, like Australia, who are a preferred destination for Asian students at the undergraduate level because of its lower living costs and relatively efficient visa systems?
To be sure, these are important concerns and ones that GlobalHigherEd will follow. However, we think that another significant issue is what will happen to the relationship that universities (until now the sole providers of post graduate studies in the UK) have long held as central to quality graduate learning, and that is the importance of research-based teaching to ensure graduates develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes oriented to new knowledge creation rather than simply transmission.
As if to anticipate this line of questioning, Carl Ligo, Principal of BPP College of Professional Studies, planned, according to the Financial Times:
…to pay top dollar to get the best lecturers.
Using language that is likely to outrage some academics in more conventional universities, he added: We don’t have the baggage of traditional research, so we’re more focused on customer service.
Letting the private sector in might well suit the government. Last week’s Education at a Glance 2007 report from the OECD showed Britain had fallen behind other countries in the proportion of young people entering college or university. As the Financial Times noted in their comments on the matter today:
…private sector involvement could also bring the government closer to its target of ensuring that 50 per cent of young people undertake higher or further education.
Which ever way we look at it, the Privy Council decision represents a significant shift in the regulatory environment shaping global higher education in the UK.