BPP’s uni bid put at risk by US parent woes

An American higher education watchdog has warned the parent company of England’s second biggest law school, BPP, that its flagship private university is likely to be breaching governance rules – a move already resonating in the UK.

Concern over the operation of the University of Phoenix – owned by private education giant, Arizona-based Apollo Group – could damage the chances of BPP Law School in its pending bid for university title in England.

BPP’s application, initially submitted in January, is moving to a crucial phase, with two assessment bodies finalising their reports to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Legal education commentators speculate that ministers might be advised to postpone a decision on title, pending resolution of issues across the Atlantic.

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England told The Lawyer that the council’s board met earlier this month to review the application and to hammer out final recommendations. Likewise, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is understood to be in the final stages of its review.

However, a fortnight ago, the US’s Higher Learning Commission placed the University of Phoenix on “notice” that it was “pursuing a course of action that … could make it no longer in compliance with one or more … criteria for accreditation”. The statement continued to say that the commission had “concerns related to governance, assessment, and research and scholarship”.

Concerns over BPP’s US parent combine with issues raised by regulators on this side of the Atlantic. In March, BPP put its hands up to an “administrative error” causing a breach of bar rules dictating when offer letters can be sent to prospective students.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) stipulates a level playing field to prevent providers from making early offers to the most desirable students. There was no suggestion that BPP intentionally broke the rules, but the BSB made clear its concern and was adamant that the error should not be repeated.

One legal education commentator suggested today that the ultimate recommendation to Whitehall from the review bodies might be to postpone a decision on university title while issues in America are resolved and the dust settles with the bar.

Officials at the HEFC and the QAA declined to comment on specific factors considered in their recommendations to ministers. The former told The Lawyer that it looked at three elements in any application: student numbers as well as corporate and financial governance. While the latter said it is tasked with advising on academic governance.

Commentators point out that the University of Law sailed through the process in less than half the time the BPP application has taken when it upgraded from college status.

However, some say officials fast-tracked the then-college’s application because of its charity status at the time – only to see the university sold subsequently to a private equity house. It is understood that Whitehall has added layers of red tape to the process following the College of Law upgrade.

Meanwhile, Peter Crisp, dean of BPP’s law school, said he hoped for a decision on university title in the next few weeks. He declined to comment on regulatory issues affecting BPP’s US parent.