Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The College of Law: More misinformation

It is absolutely fine that the Guardian doesn't read my blog (you can supply your own peeved tone of voice for this sentence if you wish), but it is a shame they didn't read WonkHE before putting more misinformation about the sale of the College of Law in the public domain. To repeat, the degree awarding powers of the College have not been sold, and the concern identified in the piece is mostly either inaccurate or beside the point. This, in particular, is pure tosh:

These mechanisms appear to avoid many of the difficulties involved in transferring the valuable power to award degrees, which most institutions have earned over years – sometimes centuries – to new organisations, and offer for-profit companies a way into the booming higher education market.
This could be especially valuable since the higher education white paper, which had included measures to make it easier for new providers to award degrees, has been indefinitely delayed.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

New College of the Humanities Enters Clearing

Working in one of London's less-fashionable Universities, I am familiar with the kind of press releases institutions produce when they are going into Clearing. New College of the Humanities hasn't yet quite mastered the genre. There should be a reference to 'a few' places still being available, so the statement right at the end of the release

Both Scholarship and Exhibition places are still available for the College’s first cohort, and as the admission process is independent of UCAS, applications can be made until August 2012. 

is about right, but they haven't made the reference to future job prospects that we older hands would consider pretty much obligatory. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The College of Law: misunderstandings continue

The College of Law put out a press release on 17 April to announce the expected conclusion of the sale of their legal education business to the private equity firm Montagu. The sale of a private HE provider with degree awarding powers isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual enough to have made the news. Unfortunately, the news reports have got some significant aspects of the story wrong because they don’t understand how degree awarding powers are regulated, and the College’s press materials on the issue were unhelpfully worded.
BBC say that Montagu has brought ‘a UK college with its own degree-awarding powers’. Times Higher Education has an even more explosive story, suggesting that the private equity firm will gain the degree awarding powers directly: ‘Montagu will hold the degree awarding powers and run the college as a for-profit entity.’ The Guardian uses vaguer language, saying that the sale ‘includes contractual commitments with law firms, as well as the College of Law brand and all its accreditations.’  So of the three, it is only The Guardian that manages not to get the story explicitly wrong.
There is no way that the College of Law can sell or transfer its degree awarding powers to anyone. This is impossible under English law. Degree awarding powers are granted by the Privy Council and cannot be transferred, exchanged or sold. When I saw the news yesterday (18 April) I spoke to colleagues at BIS and QAA to confirm my understanding, and I am glad to say that when I then spoke to the College of Law they removed the confusing phrase ‘our degree awarding powers will transfer with the sale’ from the FAQ on their press release, although you can still hear Nigel Savage, the College’s CEO, make essentially the same claim ‘our degree awarding powers will seamlessly transfer’ about 1 minute thirty seconds into this interview on the College’s site.
As the College has withdrawn the statement in their FAQ, there doesn’t seem to be any clear current statement about what they expect to happen to the degree awarding powers. This is unfortunate. It would have been helpful if the College had put up new material to clarify what they meant by their FAQ, and I hope they will do this soon. Their current students deserve reassurance about what will happen to the degree awarding powers, and those of us in the rest of the sector also have an obvious interest. As a charity with a Royal Charter, the current College of Law is constitutionally similar to many existing public-sector universities (mostly pre-92s) so the outcome of this sale has direct implications for them, their staff and their students too.
This post originally appeared at WonkHE.
What I didn't ask Mark to put on WonkHE, because it is pure and baseless speculation, is my view of what the College and Montagu may actually plan. 
The College earned its degree awarding powers in 2006. As a 'private provider', it will be due for renewal this year, 2012. Instead of the Secretary of State making the normal recommendation for renewal (see para 78 here) the powers can be allowed to lapse. A new application can then be made for the company to have degree awarding powers. Although the normal expectation is that applicants for degree awarding powers shall 'have had no fewer than four consecutive years' experience, immediately preceding the year of application, of delivering higher education programmes at a level at least equivalent to Level H of the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications' that crucial word 'normally' could allow the Privy Council to consider that the ongoing education business has this experience, even though the brand new private company formed around it clearly does not. There need be no risk to Montagu since the existing College will form the company and apply for the DAPs for it, and the sale of the company can be made conditional on successful award of these new DAPs.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The College of Law: Sale Agreed

The sale of the College of Law has been agreed. As predicted, the education business is to be spun out into a new company, and the existing charitable institution will continue to exist (helpfully changing its name to avoid potential confusion). I had previously doubted the reports that the private company was to control the degree awarding powers of the College, but the College's press statement has a bare statement that ' our degree awarding powers will transfer with the sale'. This simply cannot be true. I have spoken to both QAA and BIS today to confirm this, and whilst there were obviously limitations about what they could say to me about an active commercial negotiation, they confirmed that there is no legal mechanism by which the degree awarding powers can be transferred. It would be like Parliament transferring its law-making powers to Tesco.

I have spoken to the College's PR to ask them what this statement on their website (which was repeated by Nigel Savage in an interview here) is intended to mean, since it cannot literally be true. The PR lady naturally isn't a specialist in the ins and outs of Higher Education law. She explained that it was important to reassure current students, and that the sale is conditional on the receipt of a number of regulatory consents, which are expected to be forthcoming over the coming months.

In my view it is not very reassuring for the College's current students that the reassurance they are being offered is, in fact, literally untrue. As aspiring lawyers they may perhaps be as pedantic as I am about points like this. The College have now been back in touch with me to confirm that the FAQ on their site is potentially misleading, and will be taken down (my link may no longer work by the time you read this). It will be interesting to see what replaces it.