David Willetts met for-profit university firms
- 2 October 2011
- From the section Education & Family
Minister David Willetts held at least 12 meetings with for-profit education firms before publishing his plans for university reform for England.
Meetings with representatives from two firms accused of recruitment or public loan fraud in the US were among them.
The universities minister published plans to make it easier for private providers to enter the sector in June.
The government said Mr Willetts had spoken to higher education providers "of all types" before doing so.
Mr Willetts has been up-front about his plans to open up England's higher education system to private providers to help increase the number and type of university places available and boost competition.
But his plans have drawn criticism from academics and opposition politicians who fear that it could lead to a fall in the quality of education available, with more learning being carried out online and in non-traditional ways.
Most of the meetings were revealed to the BBC in answer to a parliamentary question from Barry Gardiner MP.
He said the scale of the contact between these for-profit firms and Mr Willetts was "extraordinary and appalling".
In July 2010 Mr Willetts met one firm, the Education Management Corporation (EDMC), which is currently being sued for $11bn by the Department of Justice in the US over its alleged student recruitment practices.
The firm is accused of wrongly using federal education funds to pay bonuses to its student recruiters, a claim it vehemently denies.
Another firm Mr Willetts met, Apollo, has paid out millions of dollars over claims it improperly recruited students to the University of Phoenix.
Although Apollo admitted no liability in a whistleblower case in 2009, it settled saying it wanted to bring "closure to a long-running dispute" and avoid "uncertainty and further expense associated with protracted litigation".
Apollo is the parent company of BPP University College of Professional Studies, which gained university college status last year. It was the first private sector institution to gain this status for more than 30 years.
Mr Willetts met representatives of Apollo and BPP in May 2011. He also met BPP as part of wider meetings with higher education providers in December 2010 and January 2011.
A spokesman for BPP said of the meetings: "There was an exchange of views which centred on BPP University College's plans to grow its career-focused degree programmes."
Mr Willetts also met publishing giant Pearson five times. This includes three meetings in close succession in the run-up to the publication of White Paper on higher education in England, which pledged to "make it easier for new providers to enter the sector".
Mr Willetts, who spoke at a Pearson event in May 2010 about the future of higher education, also plans to allocate 20,000 places to degree course providers charging less than £7,500 a year.
These are expected to be mainly from further education colleges and the private providers, and have widely been seen as a means of addressing the fact that so many universities plan top-price fees of £9,000 a year.
Pearson, one of the world's biggest publishers, has made no secret of its plans to seek degree-awarding powers in England's education system.
After a meeting with Mr Willetts in December 2010, the firm announced that it was planning to start by offering four vocational degrees with a further education college at "very competitive" prices. These will be piloted from September 2012, when the new fees system beings.
It also said in June that it would be offering degrees in conjunction with Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, which would be the validating partner.
But it is still pursuing its aim of gaining degree-awarding powers itself, potentially working as a validating partner for England's further education colleges.
A Pearson spokesman said: "Pearson provides and develops qualifications including BTecs, A-Levels and GCSEs as well as publishing support materials and offering technology products for schools, colleges and universities.
"As part of this work, we meet with teachers, education stakeholders and government representatives to discuss our plans and share ideas."
Mr Willetts also met a firm called Laureate, which has 55 higher education institutions in 27 countries. In England it runs online masters and doctoral degree courses accredited by the University of Liverpool.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said its ministers complied with the rules regarding disclosure of their meetings.
"In the run-up to the publication of the higher education White Paper David Willetts spoke to higher education providers of all types," he added.
'Fraught with danger'
But Mr Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, said: "The fact that there have been at least 12 meetings just shows what the focus of the higher education minister is with private sector providers and undermining the existing public sector provision. This is not what he should be focusing on.
"These are not chance meetings; they are ideologically driven meetings about what this government sees as the future of higher education on this country.
"It is not a pretty sight and it is not what the British people recognise. They want to Americanise the system."
General secretary of the UCU lecturers' union Sally Hunt said: "Events in America have shown the for-profit model is fraught with danger for students and taxpayers alike.
"Rather than meeting with the privateers, we believe the government should tighten up existing regulations and abandon any proposals that would further encourage for-profit companies in the UK.
"The companies being sued and investigated by the US Congress are the very same ones who are now eyeing up the UK."