Working Paper 47

Private providers of higher education in the UK: mapping the terrain

Published April 2019

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Working Paper 47, authored by Dr Stephen Hunt and Professor Vikki Boliver, reports on the findings of a web-based survey of private providers of higher education operating in the UK in 2017.

The findings indicate that there as some 813 private providers in operation in the UK – a significant increase on the 732 and 674 recorded in 2014 and 2011 respectively.

However, there appears to be a degree of volatility in the private provider sector: 50 per cent (363) of private providers identified by prior research conducted in 2014 had ceased to operate, at least as HE providers, three years later. Of these, 165 were listed as dissolved at Companies House, 70 had simply vanished without trace, and a further 128 were still in operation but no longer providing courses at HE level, or possibly never had.

The vast majority of private providers, 88 per cent, operate exclusively in England. Private providers range from a few large-scale colleges and private universities with 1000+ enrolled students to small scale providers offering courses in addition to their principle business.

The majority of private providers, some 64 per cent, are for-profit enterprises. For-profit private providers tend to be younger than not-for-profit private providers, and more vulnerable to market exit. For-profit enterprises accounted for 61 per cent of all private providers identified in 2014 but 90 per cent of all those providers found to have closed down between 2014 and 2017.

Many providers are small scale, concentrating on sub-degree or postgraduate qualification across a narrow band of subjects – often characterised as being popular but with low overheads. This means private providers are as likely to complete amongst themselves as with the public sector.

The paper also details the qualifications offered by private providers of higher education; the subject specialisations; levels of innovation in delivery, such as accelerated courses; the number and characteristics of students; and the quality of inspections on the providers.

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