8 reasons we shouldn’t use the term ‘provider’ – and what we could say instead

The term ‘provider’ is problematic and we need a new and better one to replace it in our lexicon of education

The term ‘provider’ is problematic and we need a new and better one to replace it in our lexicon of education

3 Dec 2023, 5:00

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, a debate is brewing over the term ‘provider’ and its application to esteemed institutions such as colleges, institutes for adult learning and local authority adult community education services. Advocates for change argue that the use of this term diminishes the significance of their work and fails to garner the attention and recognition they rightly deserve.

For my part, it seems that the term ‘provider’ could mean anything. It’s demeaning, disrespectful and minimises the great work our sector does to support individuals and their communities.

Not convinced? Here are eight reasons to jettison the word from our educational vocabulary, and my pitch for what to replace it with.

1. Narrow focus

The term ‘provider’ suggests a narrow focus on delivering services, potentially overshadowing the broader educational goals of these institutions. Learning organisations aspire to more than just service delivery; their missions often include fostering critical thinking, creativity and personal growth. Often, they support learners, families and whole communities well beyond the strict remit of providing courses.

2. Incomplete representation

Learning institutions are not just service providers; they engage in curriculum development, research, policy advocacy and community engagement. The term ‘provider’ falls short in representing the multifaceted role they play in society, potentially diminishing their standing and role in fostering economic gain.

3. Depersonalisation of education

Critics argue that the term ‘provider’ depersonalises the educational process, reducing education, mentoring and teaching to mere mechanical processes. This oversimplification neglects the intricate and nurturing relationships that form the foundation of effective learning.

4. Commodification of learning

Referring to education as a ‘service’ delivered by a ‘provider’ emphasises a transactional relationship  that belongs in the register of commerce rather than education. It’s language that undermines the intrinsic value of learning, turning it into a mere commodity, and the relational nature of education.

5. Overemphasis on delivery

The use of ‘provider’ can shift the focus towards the delivery of content, sidelining crucial aspects of the learning experience. Learning is not solely about what is provided but how it is absorbed, understood and applied.

6. Downplaying diversity

‘Provider’ oversimplifies the diverse nature of education and learning, failing to capture the variety of approaches, methods and philosophies employed by different institutions – and indeed within institutions.

7. Quantity over quality

Perhaps inadvertently, the term ‘provider’ with all its connotations prioritises quantity and profitability over educational quality and ethical considerations. This is a key concern among critics of the commercialisation of education, and one its proponents have consistently argued should be guarded against.

8. Incommensurate with our standing

The department for education and its agencies extensively use the term ‘provider’, while simultaneously talking up FE’s parity with other parts of the education sector and its importance to economic prosperity. For all the reasons above, the language and aspiration are essentially incompatible. The term is disrespectful, hinders the sector’s desired standing and diverts attention from learning organisations’ overarching objectives and values.

Embracing ‘learning organisations’

It would great if agencies of government could use institutions’ true names: college, institute for adult learning or local authority adult service. If that’s not possible then we advocate a change and propose adopting the term ‘learning organisations’ as a more encompassing and respectful alternative. This shift would better reflect the multifaceted nature of these institutions and highlight their crucial role in shaping society.

As the debate continues, the education sector grapples with the challenge of finding a term that truly encapsulates the essence of these vital institutions. Of course, there are other more pressing priorities, but one thing I am convinced of is that the choice of language goes beyond mere semantics.

How we are referred to – and how we refer to ourselves – reflects our values, our priorities and our worth. That makes this debate an empowering one for the sector. But more than that, it could turn out to be the key that unlocks many of our other challenges.

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  1. Lofty talk, diminished by omitting independent training providers from the list of ‘esteemed’ learning organisations at the start of the article. Then omitting them again at the end!

    Zero hours contracts and poor working conditions are demeaning and disrespectful. Better off finally shining a light of that, rather than debating a re-branding exercise. You can only kick the can down the road for so long.