Higher education, once high on the government’s agenda, seems to have slipped down the list part way through the reform of the sector. In order to aid resolution of this matter Hefce, the Higher Education Funding Council for England whivh was designed as a funding body, not a planning one, has become (in England) the ‘lead regulator’ of the quasi-privatised HE sector. As there is no cap on students numbers (there was in the past) those who wish to study through the OU can take out a loan, Hefce has not much control over those universities which teaches relatively little expensive science and are likely to gain most of their income from non-Hefce sources.
In addition, there are no restrictions on ownership of private HE institutions. Indeed degree-awarding powers have become tradeable, In April a private equity firm with no known experience in education, Montagu Private Equity bought the College of Law which has charitable status. At the time the College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage said:
This will build on our heritage and connections with law firms and organisations such as the Open University and International Bar Association. Our vision is to be the leading world-class professional law school.
Peter Scott, the professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education has recently argued that ‘the government now sees higher education as politically toxic’ and is unlikely to propose new legislation to resolve that which he calls the ‘mass of contradictions’.
The OU is not a stranger to the market or to competition but the current situation does it few favours. It is more fiercely in competition for students than it has been in the past, fees are rising and the job opportunities for graduates are falling. These factors might make the prospect of studying through the OU less attractive to some potential students.