Lancaster University’s penchant for entering into
partnerships on vague promises of
internationalisation, i.e. how to increase overseas tuition fees, is well known (see subtexts passim ad nauseam). One doesn’t need to be reminded of COMSATS, or Goenka, or indeed several other partnerships that didn’t live to see the light of day.
But some recent alliances, with partners that have a seemingly colourful history, seem to indicate that LU’s strategy of internationalisation might come apart one day. Tempted by income expansion, and overriding any ethical or pedagogical concerns, LU operates with wild abandon when it comes to outsourcing education provision to private companies like UA92, Navitas and Study Group, and accommodation service provision to companies such as UPP, to name a few. Trade unions in the past have raised concerns about the lack of transparency in governance and decision making, including concerns about lack of consultation with staff and students, to no avail. LU partnerships remain shrouded in secrecy with no clear financial or academic accountability.
Now read on…
This story starts way back in 2007 when the university outsourced its foundation year provision to Study Group (SG) to run the International Study Centre (ISC) on campus. The initial contract was for five years, with a remit to increase international student numbers on campus. The partnership achieved this, to some extent, but only by recruiting students mainly from one country (greater than 80%). With the impact of COVID on international mobility, this opportunity has now turned into a threat. More importantly, the contract was renewed before the expiry of the first contract, in 2011, for another 10 years.
Prof Andrew Atherton came to Lancaster as Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 2013, having previously been Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lincoln. Prof Atherton got to know SG Director Paul Lovegrove whilst at Lincoln, when SG was given a lucrative contract to run its first-year provision. Readers will remember that in 2014, a similar plan to outsource LU’s Part I to SG didn’t succeed (see subtext 121).
It is believed that Lancaster’s SG contract, which was set to expire this year, has been given another extension, but it is not clear for how long or if another deal has been struck on D Floor.
Having jumped onto the international student gravy train, the University announced in 2017 that it was entering into a partnership with Manchester United’s
Class of 92 to open UA92, a football-themed
university academy in Manchester. Presumably designed to attract Man U fans, the academy struggled to recruit for its first cohort in 2019–20, with just 83 students enrolled at the time of a (supportive) Quality Assurance Agency visit in January 2020. It is not yet clear whether the numbers have improved during 2020–21.
Despite several queries and concerns, the partnership remains shrouded in secrecy. LU maintains that the football university (sorry, academy) is a separate entity and not a part of Lancaster University in any way. However, Lancaster has a substantial stake in the academy (the Vice-Chancellor is a director of the holding company) and, not unsurprisingly, has reportedly made substantial losses in the venture to the tune of £1.1 million last year. It is expected that cohort size will be
sufficient to break even in 2022–23, although till then the partnership will continue to make losses and is seeking a further £5m in funding. LU has acquired a
further tranche of share capital in a joint venture, University Academy 92 Limited for an undisclosed amount. One wonders what research was conducted by Lancaster to gauge whether the scheme was pedagogically desirable, or even commercially viable. All cloaked in
commercial in confidence. The Chair of the UA92 Board, Marnie Jane Millard, is a clear winner however — with her extensive experience of getting kids to drink Vimto, she might have some refreshing ideas for the students taking sports courses…
Things change, people move on. In 2017 Paul Lovegrove moved from SG to Navitas, another private provider of outsourced higher education provision, as CEO. A couple of years later, in 2019, Andrew Atherton moved to the University of Dundee, as Principal. Just two months after Prof Atherton left LU, the University announced another partnership agreement with Navitas to open a campus in Leipzig, Germany. Given that partnership agreements with providers on overseas territories typically involve months of multi-party negotiations, including several layers of compliance with rules and regulations of the host country, we can all safely assume that old friendships played absolutely no part in this deal. To top everything off, no staff consultation took place, which has by now become the hallmark of Lancaster. It was all going smoothly… but one can’t predict the twists and turns of fate! Unfortunately, just a few months after joining Dundee, Prof Atherton resigned his role following allegations of bullying and an investigation for failure to pay rent. Disgraced, but not out of favour, he found new employment with Navitas as Global Director Transnational Education.
Fast forward to 2021, when the University announces a new partnership between LU, Navitas and UA92:
The Vice-Chancellor welcomed the new development, which will
attract more international students to UA92’s unique degree programmes – good for students and good for the overall diversity of UA92 and the local area. In what ways? Mr Lovegrove announced that Navitas was
delighted to be partnering with UA92 and this new relationship strengthens our existing partnership with Lancaster University. Was, one wonders, Prof Atherton involved in the deal in some way? If so, he seems to be keeping a low profile as he doesn’t appear on any of the media releases. A wise move, perhaps, lest it have rekindled former colleagues’ memories of his allegedly less-than-collegial behaviour as Deputy Vice-Chancellor. However, there may be another twist to this: is Navitas seeking to take over the running of the lucrative ISC from SG? Readers may be interested to know that the SG partnership in Leicester University has now been taken over by Navitas, where Mr Lovegrove was reportedly influential in clinching the deal.
Finally, allegations of bullying have recently emerged at LU Ghana, run in partnership between Lancaster University and the Transnational Academic Group, another private provider. Concerns have also been raised at LU-BJTU College over health and safety issues, under-resourcing of provision and misleading staff about life at the
Weihai campus. For those not familiar with the location of LU-BJTU College, it is based at Nanhai, in a relatively remote area about 60km from Weihai city centre, although the marketing materials and all references to LU-BJTU College refer to it as the Weihai campus. One staff member described this as similar to a college building in Morecambe being called the Manchester campus [older readers may know this trick as the
EasyJet shuffle – Eds].