Public meeting over controversial plans for University of Central Lancashire

Opponents of plans to privatise the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) are meeting on 22nd January at 5pm to consider the next steps in their campaign to halt moves that would see the Lancashire institution change into a private company.

UCLAN, like most modern universities, is currently a corporation established by statute. The statutes limit what a university can do with its assets and ensure they are used for educational purposes. However, the vice-chancellor, Malcolm McVicar, has unveiled plans that would change the institution into a private company limited by guarantee.

The new company would be called UCLAN Group with McVicar as chief executive and the current university a subsidiary of the group. The university has recently clarified that the proposals have not been signed off and no final decision has been taken.

The public meeting will take place in the Mitchell and Kenyon Cinema in the Greenbank lecture theatre on the main campus. Speakers include the University and College Union’s (UCU) head of higher education, Michael MacNeil; UNISON’s regional secretary, Kevan Nelson and the TUC regional secretary, Lynn Collins.

The unions fear the privatisation plans will erode scrutiny of the university’s decisions and allow private equity funds a much sought-after route into UK higher education. Although the university would remain a charity, the proposed changes would make it easier for the university to slim down its governance structures and possibly regroup some or all of its assets into a for-profit subsidiary company.

A recent report by Senator Tom Harkin into the scandal of for-profit companies in America concluded that for-profit companies – especially those with private equity backing – need greater regulation. In America for-profit companies offer derisory graduation rates, crushing levels of debt and degrees of dubious value. According to the US Education Trust, only 20 per cent of students at for-profit colleges complete a four-year course, and a fifth of those who do finish default on their loans within three years.

UCU head of higher education, Michael MacNeil, said: “We do not believe UCLAN making arrangements with private firms to radically alter its mission is a wise move. These plans seem to be driven by the vice-chancellor, who will become the chief executive of the new company.

“Our universities’ reputations for excellence are built on the fact that education, not profit, comes first. The problems from America make it quite clear that we need greater regulation of the for-profit sector currently circling higher education. We have serious concerns that private equity funds will come in seeking a quick buck.”

Kevan Nelson, Regional Secretary UNISON North West, said: “It is crucial that we continue to work together to defend public services. UNISON is totally committed to safeguarding public education and to ensuring that the educational infrastructure of the North West retains its core commitment to excellence which is open and accountable to local people. UNISON will work to maintain educational provision throughout schools, further and higher education which is accessible and driven by public value and public service rather than profit.”

UCU has launched a petition opposing the plans at https://www.ucu.org.uk/uclanpetition The union has also published a report ‘Public Service or Portfolio Investment’, which highlights the danger presented to quality, standards and to public assets presented by private equity funds. The full report is available at http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/0/l/ucu_psopi_oct12.pdf

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