The private life of education

Does the for-profit sector make more promising graduates than its publicly funded counterpart?

No stranger to academia, with degrees in medicine and law from the universities of Birmingham and Staffordshire, Amardeep Singh opted out of the state sector for his Masters qualification. To the dismay of his mother, a professor in a Russell Group university, the 26-year-old picked the private provider BPP to pursue his Masters in finance and investment. Comparing the experiences, Singh, now working for a Dubai-based company, believes that the for-profit sector has plenty to offer career-minded professionals.

"The programme is very practitioner-focused, with all the tutors having already had successful careers in investment banking or wealth management," says Singh. "The focus is making sure you not only leave with the skills to get work, but also knowing what to do once you're there."

Singh says City employers appear to have no reservations about the qualification coming from BPP rather than more established business schools. "BPP has a leading reputation in law and accountancy so companies already know and trust them," says Singh. "Employers know people coming out of BPP are not just book smart, but also street smart."

BPP University College – the first private provider in the UK to be awarded university college status since Buckingham 36 years ago – is part of an exclusive group. There are just seven private providers with degree-awarding powers in the UK, although the club may well expand as the coalition Government advances its "provider agnostic" philosophy on public services provision.

The seven face a level of scrutiny not endured by their publicly funded counterparts as they are audited by the UK Quality Assurance Agency every six years. It's an issue that obviously grates. The QAA audit is a time-consuming and painful exercise, but few are willing to publicly criticise this unlevel playing field.

The club may be exclusive, but it is also disparate. Some, such as BPP, are clearly for-profit organisations, backed by private equity, while others, such as the IFS School of Finance and Regent's College, are registered charities.

The newest member is the Reading-based College of Estate Management, with the distance-learning specialist for real estate and construction professionals gaining its degree-awarding powers at the start of the year.

All of these offer postgraduate programmes, albeit these are often part of a highly tailored portfolio drawing on decades of specialist training to a particular profession.

BPP, for example, was established over 35 years ago as a specialist trainer for accountants and lawyers. It was granted degree-awarding powers in 2007 and two years later was acquired for £335m by Apollo Group, a joint venture between the US-based for-profit educator Apollo Group and The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. The programmes are unashamedly commercial with, says Peter Crisp of BPP Law School, "professionals teaching professionals".

BPP's big rival is the College of Law, owned by the London private equity group Montagu, which last year was granted the full title to become the University of Law. These two for-profit institutions are highly connected in the legal and accountancy professions, which ensures both are reporting robust postgraduate applications despite the squeeze in the City.

BPP and the University of Law are relative newcomers compared to the IFS School of Finance, which can trace its history back to 1879, when it was the Institute of Bankers. It was granted degree-awarding powers in January 2010 and is the only professional body in the UK to have this distinction. Although its postgrad offering is limited to just one programme, an MSc in banking practice and management, it is a highly regarded qualification within the industry.

"We have access to some of the most senior people in the business, so before we design a programme we take it out to the industry to make sure we've got it right and it's relevant," says principal Gavin Shreeve who says he makes no apology for the rigour and difficulty of the programme. "In education, reputation is everything."

Of the private providers, the University of Buckingham, founded in 1976, has perhaps the highest public profile. Its highly competitive two-year undergraduate offer is looking increasingly compelling for students seeking to minimise the impact of higher tuition fees. But Buckingham also offers a diverse range of professional postgraduate qualifications in subjects where the university has real international clout and reputation.

Professor Anthony Glees, head of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, which offers a range of highly regarded postgraduate programmes, points out that smaller private providers can have an edge over their lumbering state counterparts, because they don't carry the same overhead and can react quickly to changes in the marketplace.

"We're very adaptive and very much a 'light-touch' institution with a high degree of independence and academic freedom," says Glees, adding this freedom also extends to the recruitment of teaching staff with high-flying careers in the real world.

Founded in 1959 by leaders from corporate luminaries Shell, Guinness and Unilever, Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire is a leading provider of customised executive education, as well as MBA, MSc and doctorate qualifications. Despite being a premium provider – a Masters here will set you back £15,000 – applications have remained stable in the face of turbulent economic headwinds. It achieves this, says dean of graduate studies Dr Narendra Laljani, by being highly customer-centric.

Indeed, Laljani says this is what unites the seven private providers. "We all live and die by the fees we earn and that means we are very focused on the student experience." That experience involves small class sizes, state-of-the-art facilities, flexible learning packages and faculty that bring experience to the classroom.

Sarah Hutchinson, board member for business development at the College of Law, agrees that the lack of state funding sharpens the mind. "Because we are not subsidised by the Government there's no safety net. We have to get it right and that means attracting the best students."

This means programmes that are geared to the workplace and careers services highly attuned to the employment market. No ivory towers here.

Should the state sector be worried? Tuition fees mean students are increasingly hard-nosed, and rightly so, about what they get for their spend. When they later seek out professional postgraduate qualifications, those same considerations will come into play. While reputation will always be the trump card, agile, cost-competitive and career-minded private providers may have the edge over many of their subsidised rivals.