BBC News

Private college undercuts on tuition fees

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionCity competition: The view from the ifs School of Finance in London

Competition on tuition fees has sharpened with a private provider set to charge £5,750 to £6,000 per year.

The ifs School of Finance, one of only five private colleges with its own degree-awarding powers, is to offer degree courses costing a third less than most of its rivals.

The London-based college is planning to expand to other cities.

The government's higher education White Paper last week called for more competition from the private sector.

The ifs School of Finance, which specialises in degrees related to the financial services industry, is now showing how this could happen.


A majority of universities have set fees at £9,000 per year - but this not-for-profit private provider is offering fees at £3,000 or more below this level.

It is also proposing a degree taught in two years, which would further reduce the debt compared with three-year courses.

Under changes announced by the government, students at this private college will be able to borrow the full amount in a student loan.

Places will also be available through the UCAS application system.

Vice-principal Martin Day says the school is making students a "compelling offer".

Mr Day says the college will be run on a more efficient model, focusing on a specific subject area and without the running costs of some universities with large campuses.

But he says the quality remains as high as any other university - and that courses have to meet the standards set by the Quality Assurance Agency watchdog.

As the college is a not-for-profit charity, he says there is no pressure to maximise returns from fees.

Joining the mainstream

The school, which evolved from the 19th-Century Institute of Bankers, gained degree-awarding powers last year.

It is going to charge £5,750 for its degree in Banking Practice and Management and £6,000 for degrees in Accounting and Finance for Financial Services and Financial Analysis and Risk.

image captionStudents at the college will be paying a third less than many universities

Mr Day says that pricing is an "incidental benefit" to students - and the bigger picture is about such specialist private providers becoming part of the mainstream university system.

"It's about joining the higher education scene, not about snatching market share or beating other providers. It's about becoming part of the landscape.

"We want to be the pre-eminent provider for this section of the market," said Mr Day.

The school also wants to expand. There will be an initial intake of 50 undergraduate students on these degree courses - with plans to open two more bases in other UK cities.

London calling

Competition for students is likely to be particularly intense in London - and the London Metropolitan University has already announced that it is going to cut two thirds of its courses.

The government's White Paper on higher education has promised to open up the university system to private providers and competition on price.

It has promised 20,000 places for providers charging less than an average of £7,500 in fees.

Mr Day says there is still a need for more "clarity" about access to these places.

There have been other signals of an expanding role for the private sector.

The publisher Pearson revealed this week that it is going to enter the degree market, in a partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London.

BPP University College, another of the small group of private providers with degree-awarding powers, has said it is in talks with three public universities about partnerships.

The government also wants it to make it easier for colleges and university colleges to gain university status.

A number of university colleges are expected to apply to become full universities, once the White Paper proposals are enacted.