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Introduction

HE providers in England are a wide range of organisations. There are no restrictions over which providers can teach post-secondary education. Universities, colleges of higher education, colleges of further education, and a wide variety of other institutions, charities and companies can all run HE programmes. These providers can be for-profit or not-for-profit organisations.

The regulatory framework described here covers the grant of powers to award degrees, the right to use university or university college title, the receipt of HEFCE funding, designation for student support purposes and partnerships that deliver courses where the award is made by another organisation. These are the 'gateways' to the HE system.

The framework does not cover higher education providers that do not have degree awarding powers or do not access public funding for higher education ('public funding' here refers to direct grants from authorities such as HEFCE or because their students get publicly funded grants and loans for students), or which are not legally recognised higher education institutions. These providers may be subject to other types of assurance, such as being part of professional networks, or being accredited by an awarding body regulated by Ofqual. They may be indirectly regulated through a partnership arrangement.

The requirements of the framework described here vary according to the 'gateway' by which the provider has entered the HE system. Providers have to meet specific eligibility criteria for each of the gateways and they have an ongoing requirement to meet those conditions.  

Awarding degrees

Students who successfully complete a course of study usually receive a diploma, certificate or degree. If they are awarded a degree, it can be a foundation degree, a bachelor's degree with honours, a master's degree or a doctorate. Study for a foundation or bachelor's degree is known as undergraduate study and other study as postgraduate study. 

Further information about HE qualifications is available in the Framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Historically universities and colleges were usually given their degree awarding powers by one of the following means:

  • Royal Charter - granted in perpetuity
  • Act of Parliament - granted in perpetuity
  • The Privy Council - granted in perpetuity, if the provider has been designated as eligible to receive HEFCE funding when it applies, or, if not, for a fixed term of six years, after which the provider needs to re-apply.

Any HE provider that does not currently hold degree awarding powers can make an application to the Privy Council provided they meet the minimum requirements set out in the guidance. See the full details of eligibility and other criteria for degree awarding powers. The Department for Education has the lead role in advising Privy Council on applications for degree awarding powers, and applications are processed by HEFCE.

There are three types of degree awarding power: foundation, teaching and research. These powers are cumulative: a provider with teaching degree awarding powers can also award foundation degrees, and a provider with the power to award research degrees can award taught and foundation degrees. Only further education corporations may be granted foundation degree awarding powers.

Further information is available.

The HEFCE register of HE providers records the degree awarding powers held by providers. 

Use of university or university college title

Some organisations have the right to use the title 'University' or 'University College' in their name, although they may not always do so. These terms are protected terms in law, and the Privy Council is responsible for granting university and university college title. Providers can acquire these titles, if they meet specific conditions, via one of two routes:

  • A Royal Charter or Act of Parliament; in accordance with the provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992
  • By obtaining approval for the use of the word 'University' or 'University College' in the name under the provisions of the Companies Act 2006.

A provider must already have taught UK degree awarding powers and meet a set of requirements regarding minimum student numbers before they can apply for these titles. See full details of eligibility and other criteria.

The Department for Education has a lead role in advising the Privy Council and Companies House on university and university college title applications, and it has a responsibility to monitor whether these protected terms are used legally within the UK. HEFCE processes applications.

All providers with the right to call themselves a university are Higher Education Institutions. All universities and university colleges based in England are listed on the HEFCE Register of HE providers.

Receiving HEFCE funding

The Government provides funding for HE in England, which HEFCE allocates. It supports three priorities: learning, teaching and student choice; research; and knowledge exchange with business and the wider community. This funding, administered by HEFCE, is often called 'HEFCE funding' and the institutions that receive it directly are sometimes described as 'authority funded higher education providers' or HEFCE-funded providers.

The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 sets out the types of providers HEFCE can fund. They include universities, higher education corporations, further education colleges with certain prescribed higher education courses and other institutions maintained or assisted by a local education authority. Collectively universities and higher education corporations are known as higher education institutions (HEIs).

HEFCE-funded providers must meet requirements laid out in HEFCE's Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability. These requirements are conditions of their grant from HEFCE. They specify that HEFCE-funded providers must:

  • use the funding for the educational purposes for which it is provided
  • subscribe to QAA and follow the UK Quality Code for Higher Education
  • subscribe to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and provide all required data returns to HESA
  • complete and submit audit and accountability returns for financial sustainability and governance to HEFCE
  • report formally to HEFCE on an annual basis that they have met the requirements of the Memorandum
  • keep the fees that they charge EU and UK undergraduate students up to £6,000 per year, or a higher level (currently £9,000 per year) if approved by the Office for Fair Access.

These providers can be audited by HEFCE or by the National Audit Office.

Further education colleges that offer HE may apply for funding from HEFCE. HEFCE has a funding agreement with the further education colleges that it funds to provide HE. The agreement covers the amount of funding they receive and the requirements placed upon them.

Further education colleges are already subject to a funding agreement with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), and the ESFA provides assurance annually to HEFCE about the financial sustainability of these colleges. This means that the ESFA assesses the financial health of the college and takes action where necessary. It also means that further education colleges are not subject to double regulation by both HEFCE and ESFA for any aspect of their work.

The providers that HEFCE funds directly are listed in the HEFCE Register of HE providers.

Designation for student support purposes

The Government provides financial support for tuition fees and living costs for HE students, domiciled in England, and for tuition fees of students from the European Union, who are studying in England. This support ('student support') is made available through the Student Loans Company (SLC) in the form of loans. The fees are paid directly to the HE providers on the student's behalf and the maintenance support is paid directly to the student.

Student support is governed by regulations made under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. The current regulations are the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 (as amended). These regulations govern the types of course that can attract student support and the conditions that qualify a higher education provider's students to receive it. 

All HE courses that comply with these regulations, whether they are delivered in HEFCE-funded HEIs, further education colleges or other institutions maintained or assisted by a local education authority, are automatically designated as eligible for student support. This is known as 'institutional designation'. A voluntary agreement covering these institutions is in place with the Secretary of State for Education that details the conditions associated with this arrangement.

Providers with degree awarding powers that are not designated to receive HEFCE funding may apply for their courses at ‘designated locations’ to be designated as eligible under the student support regulations.

The Secretary of State for Education designates HE courses in other providers as eligible under the student support regulations on a course-by-course basis. This is known as specific course designation. This includes initial teaching training courses that have been accredited by the Department for Education and are delivered by providers that are not funded by HEFCE (school centred initial teaching training) as well as HE courses that are delivered by providers (often referred to as alternative providers). These providers must meet the criteria and conditions both at the time their course is designated for student support and on a continuing basis thereafter. The criteria and conditions normally lay down requirements concerning academic quality and performance, course eligibility, and financial sustainability, management and governance. There are two types of student number controls that apply to undergraduate students at providers with specific course designation: student number controls and the student number allowance. These controls are explained fully in Specific Course Designation Guidance: Policy and Guidance for Alternative Providers of Higher Education: Criteria and Conditions.

Providers whose courses are designated on a course-by-course basis, together with their courses, are listed in the HEFCE Register of HE providers.

SLC's obligation to pay student support is set out in the Education (Student Support) Regulations. For both tuition fee and maintenance loans, payment is conditional on, among other things, having an eligible student, a designated course and confirmation of the student's attendance.

In paying support to eligible students, SLC relies on accurate and timely information from HE providers. Providers are responsible for ensuring that this information is fit for purpose and fulfilling this responsibility forms part of both the voluntary agreement and the specific course designation criteria and conditions for student support. Detailed service definitions are in place between SLC and providers.

SLC also relies on designation decisions made by the Department for Education, together with ongoing compliance monitoring against designation terms and conditions provided by HEFCE. A memorandum of understanding is in place between HEFCE and SLC, supported by an annual exchange of letters of assurance between the two organisations.

Partnerships that deliver courses where the award is made by another organisation

HE providers in England often work collaboratively with each other, with other awarding bodies and with professional bodies. There are many different ways of doing this, and they each provide a different level of assurance over the delivery provider. Some providers operate exclusively within these collaborative arrangements, and so have an indirect relationship with the regulatory framework. Some common forms of partnership arrangement are described below.

Validation by a provider with degree awarding powers

HE providers that do not have degree awarding powers but that wish to offer a course leading to an award from a degree awarding provider may enter into a validation arrangement with that body. A validated course is described in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education as a module or programme which a degree awarding body approves to contribute, or lead, to one of their awards. Students on the course normally have a direct contractual relationship with the delivery provider.

The Quality Code explains that in a validation relationship, the degree awarding body has ultimate responsibility for the academic standards of any awards granted in its name, and also for the quality of the learning opportunities provided. 

Providers validated by a degree awarding body may also submit their courses for designation under the Student Support Regulations. Student loan fees have to be paid to the delivery provider.

HE providers that offer validated courses leading to degrees are known as 'listed bodies', and are listed periodically by the Department for Education.

Delivering a qualification awarded by another awarding body

Providers may also offer courses leading to an award issued by an awarding body that does not have degree awarding powers. Many of these UK awarding bodies are registered on the Ofqual register of awarding organisations. Registration is voluntary and not comprehensive.

Ofqual-regulated awarding bodies are responsible for the standards of the qualifications that they award at the end of a course, but they are not usually responsible for the quality of the learning opportunities that students might have while studying. A provider teaching a course whose award will be made by an Ofqual-regulated awarding body may not therefore fall under the regulatory framework for HE in England, described here, unless they also qualify for public funding for higher education, such as student support or HEFCE grant.

Certain qualifications offered by a non degree awarding provider may be eligible for HE student support. These include Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), Higher National Certificates (HNCs) awarded by Pearson Education Limited and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, or any award which has been accredited by the National College for Teaching and Leadership as leading to an Initial Teacher Training qualification, known as Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

These two systems are not exclusive. For example, a degree awarding university might validate an HND course, which is licensed from Edexcel, to be delivered at a Further Education College. In such a case, both the university and Edexcel will make an award. Such awards often have dual branding.

Accreditation by a Professional, Statutory or Regulatory Body (PSRB)

Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) are a very diverse group of professional and employer bodies, regulators and those with statutory authority over a profession or group of professionals. PSRBs engage with HE as regulators, and a full list of them can be found on the HESA website.

Some PSRBs act as awarding bodies, others only accredit the awards of other organisations, such as HE providers. Accreditation can be any process of approval leading to assurance that a programme meets the standards required by a particular profession.

Franchising from another provider

A franchise course is defined by the Department for Education as a course subject to an agreement by one institution (usually a provider with degree awarding powers) that another organisation may deliver all or part of a programme approved and owned by the first institution. The franchising institution retains overall control of the programme's content, delivery, assessment and quality assurance arrangements.

The students' contractual relationship is with the provider from which the provision is franchised, and the same assurances will apply as for provision delivered directly by this provider. This includes fee setting, data collection, quality assurance, and dealing with complaints. Both the delivering provider and the franchising provider must be members of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

Institutions’ responsibilities for returning data in partnerships are covered in HEFCE Circular Letter 18/2015.

The HEFCE Register of Providers includes publicly funded further education and sixth form colleges that deliver higher education as a franchise.

Other requirements

Recruitment of international students or staff

UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) require all higher education providers to be licensed sponsors of the international students or staff that they recruit (international in this context means students from outside the EU). Providers that wish to recruit international staff or students must have sponsor status. A list of registered sponsors is available. 

Applicants for Tier 4 (students) sponsor status must be reviewed by the Quality Assurance Agency. 

Initial Teacher Training

HE providers which offer Initial Teacher Training (ITT), including School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT), must be accredited by the Department for Education, which holds a list of all accredited ITT providers. Quality of provision is monitored through Ofsted inspections. 

Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)

Under the Higher Education Act 2004 (as amended by the Consumer Rights Act 2015), all students in receipt of student support, paid by the SLC, or studying at providers with degree awarding powers, must have access to the OIA's dispute resolution service.

Page last updated 13 September 2017

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