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Private universities: Why it pays to take the path less travelled

A budding sector that boosts prospects for those who know what they want. By Stephen Hoare

Launched in June, A C Grayling’s headline-grabbing New College of the Humanities put private universities in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Oxford philosophy don Grayling’s institution will charge students £18,000 a year.

But this picture of unabashed elitism is the opposite of Britain’s growing private university sector – institutions with full degree awarding powers and recognition by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Here fees are substantially lower and academic standards on a par with traditional institutions.

Last summer, BPP University College (pictured) was given degree-awarding powers by the Privy Council following QAA approval. This year it is followed by IFS School of Finance. Both institutions are committed to setting tuition fees substantially below those in the state sector. BPP’s fee will be around £6,000; IFS’s around £5,750.

Degree-awarding powers are also vested in The College of Law, and Buckingham University, which was founded in 1976 as the UK’s first private university, all of which adds up to healthy competition in the higher education sector. With the exception of BPP University College all of these institutions are set up as not-for-profit companies, investing what they earn in facilities.

With around a thousand students, Buckingham University is one of the smallest in the UK and offers a range of arts and humanities degrees. Generally, however, private universities tend to offer subjects linked to professions such as banking, law, finance and accountancy, and combine academic excellence with employability.

The College of Law bills itself as the largest legal training establishment in Europe, with centres in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Chester and Guildford. The LLB undergraduate law degree leads on to a range of postgraduate qualifications for barristers and solicitors.

Some private universities are starting to look at replacing the three-year degree with a more intensive two-year degree. Backed by a long pedigree in legal training, BPP University College offers a two-year law degree and from September launches a two-year business degree. Chris Brady, dean of the business school, is bullish. “The average degree is based on a 30-week year. We teach two years of 45 weeks. This fits with our emphasis on employability. This degree is your first job,” he says.

For the past 10 years, IFS School of Finance ran part-time distance learning degrees in banking under the auspices of the University of Manchester. Since the institution gained degree-awarding powers, it has launched a full-time Bachelors in banking practice and management from its campus near Monument. Next year, it will open a further four campuses in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds. IFS hopes to broaden its appeal with degrees in finance and accounting for financial services and financial analysis and risk. Entry requirements are 300 Ucas points.

So do private universities still have places at Clearing? “We have capacity,” says Martin Day, the vice-principal at IFS. “As a new institution maybe we did not hit the radar. If someone has decided on a career in finance or banking and cares about employability, then our university offers a better return on their higher education investment.”

Many private universities are located in cities, and campuses look more like office buildings than dreaming spires. According to BPP’s Brady, many of the students will be commuting. “These people have found their career path and they’re looking to move it on quickly.”

For those who don’t want to miss out on the social side of study, IFS has arranged a compromise that allows its students access to the University of London Union’s social and sports facilities. “We want our students to feel part of the London student scene,” says Day.