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Lancaster University to outsource first year degree teaching?

Chris Satori
See update: 19.06.2014: Lancaster University tuition-outsourcing proposal deferred

Lancaster University's Senate will be breaking very new ground today as it debates a proposal to privatise the teaching of a range of first year course modules by outsourcing them to a private company on campus.

According to Lancaster University news source Subtext,  the Senate is being consulted only very late in the day as they have heard rumours that  Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof Andrew Atherton has already given the green light for Study Group International (SGI) to recruit to their Part 1 (first year) Lancaster study programme (intended to be drawn up in close consultation with relevant departments).

Study Group International Ltd (Lincoln) 
Professor Atherton came to Lancaster in 2013, from his previous post as Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Lincoln University, which he held from 2002. Fortunately, he was already familiar with SGI operations as they began operating at Lincoln during his time there. SGI Lincoln provoked significant criticism from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in their September 2012 report, mainly, the use of a non-accredited examiner and exam moderators and an inconsistent approach to academic work submitted after deadlines. These initial difficulties were later largely resolved  to the QAA's satisfaction.

Study Group International Ltd (Lancaster)
Study Group International have run foundation courses for international students at Lancaster University since 2007. These are preparatory or 'pathway' courses for overseas students whose English language skills or academic qualifications don't yet meet required standards for admission to a UK degree course.  At that time there were a number of objections to this outsourcing of the foundation courses previously offered by the University itself, namely that:
  • University departments who had been undertaking this work for 30 years had been denied the opportunity to provide it

  • The SGI website for their Lancaster foundation course was cloned from the Lancaster University website template, thus giving the impression that it was a part of the University, rather than a separate, private company.

  • The wording of the SGI website implies that international students who undertake the SGI foundation course at Lancaster will be shoo-ins for places on degree courses at Lancaster University.

  • The move represented another step in 'creeping privatisation' of academic study and research.

  • The courses might depend for their profitability on paying lower wages to less qualified staff.

Global Recruitment Agency
Although UK student enrollment numbers have declined, many universities have managed to increase their intake via the international student market. In this they are hampered by limited budgets for recruitment - which is where private companies come in. SGI's recruitment arm INTO recruits in 68 countries and spends $45 million (£27 million) a year on recruitment, which is far beyond the budget of any single academic institution.

There are obvious advantages to be seen in partnering with a global recruitment agency, at a time when public funding for further education and academic research has been repeatedly cast into disarray.  Lancaster University is enthusiastic about the overseas talent it attracts and reliant on the accompanying tuition fees, which are higher for non-UK students.

A seamless transition...
In 2011 the company integrated itself still further into the University when it established the International Study Centre in the George Fox building on Lancaster campus where it offers 'a seamless transition into year one of a broad selection of mainstream courses at Lancaster University'.

This appears to suggest that SGI are offering international students who may be lacking the necessary qualifications acceptance on a degree course at a prestigious UK university, which UK students must earn by studying and passing exams set to national standards.

....gets ever smoother
The arrangement proposed to Senate today offers SGI the cachet of offering foundation courses delivered by teachers from the actual degree course to which admission is sought; degree courses dependent on enrollment fees.

Subtext further hypothesises that SGI are gearing up to launch this as an addition to their product offering from Monday of next week. We can neither confirm nor deny it until then. 

Students who pass the first year's Part 1 of a Lancaster University degree course earn enrollment to second and third year Part II. The pathway SGI Ltd is laying for itself is on track to their taking over entire degree courses under the auspices of Lancaster University. 

Lancaster's St Martin's College had a similar partnership on a not-for-profit basis, before it completed its half-a-century long struggle to earn the authority to award academic degrees itself as part of the new University of Cumbria. At SGI's accelerated rate, with the University Senate and Council's consistent approval, we can soon look forward to seeing the university's signs on the A6 change to 'Study Group International University (Lancaster) Ltd'. 

Research funding
There are further revenue streams in SGI's pathway. As well as students, academic centres such as Lancaster University also attract commercial research funding. Lancaster has strong ties to BAE Systems armaments manufacturers, among others, but claims academic independence from its corporate funders' aspirations. The creeping privatisation of academic research - and the lack of funding for independent research - is an ongoing subject for debate (largely academic) as it increasingly invalidates such claims.  

Corporate Profit v. Independent Quality...
Prof Atherton explained the dilemma to the Times in their March 2014 feature article 'Pathways to Profit':
“the classic issue you’re going to have with a private company is at a certain point there will be the risk of a trade-off between quality and revenue.... Study Group takes a “reputational approach” that keeps student standards high."

Corporate Standards 
Lancaster University itself faces the same dilemma. Two things Senate needs to consider are:

  1. Whether a 'reputational approach' depends on academic standards or a hefty international corporate marketing budget, given that the latter is what SGI brought to the table in the first place - the University brought the academic standards

  2. How independent standards can be reliably monitored and maintained through what even a rocket scientist could identify as a steady transition to becoming a private training and research facility in a global corporate chain.