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A degree of value?

Jim Dickinson reviews a new report published by Which? - the consumer rights organisation which offers a fresh insight in to students' views of their experience of higher education and their relationship with universities, further moving the debate around consumerism and the market.
This article is more than 9 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There are a lot differing views in the sector right now about the role of the market. Some seem to believe the market can solve everything and students are full blown consumers, making rational decisions in a market of choice.

There are those who reject all notions of student consumerism as neoliberal nonsense, regarding it as a conceit that fatally wounds the student-teacher partnership and treats HE as a good that it’s not.

And then there’s students themselves – usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.

Students ought therefore to be pleased with the latest contribution to the ‘Students as Consumers’ debate from consumer association ‘Which?’. The body that has historically focused on washing machines and kids’ car seats entered the HE foray seriously a few years back with public information website. Underpinning its offer has been an ongoing programme of research and policy work designed to influence the debate on HE regulation.

Are students consumers?

This latest report of theirs, A Degree of Value, is fascinating. Which? position both the report and the framing carefully – they are the first to accept that HE is not ‘a conventional market’ and take into account that students’ outcomes are co-produced. But once the preamble is done, the report (through some pretty robust looking quantitative and qualitative research) highlights some remarkable findings that contrast sharply with the overall sense of complacent satisfaction offered by the NSS:

  • Whilst the majority of students are satisfied with their course, one third of students disagree that their course is good value
  • A third of graduates say they wouldn’t go into HE if fees rose
  • Three in ten think their academic experience is poor value
  • Half found the amount of work they do demanding
  • Less than half found seminars worth attending

Of course, these are easy numbers to bat away – institutional leaders that for years have been relentlessly homogenising their offer to compete up the league tables suddenly argue that HE is in fact incredibly diverse and that comparing academic inputs is like comparing apples and oranges.

Which? disagree, arguing that putting data on contact hours, class sizes and teaching quality would both ‘be of value to some students but… will greatly strengthen the hand of regulators in overseeing overall standards’.

The Competition & Markets Authority have issued guidance to HE providers currently under consultation – read about it here.

As students’ unions that use NSS data for campaigning know all too well, in a sector where only 22% of students regard their feedback as prompt and where students work for a quarter fewer hours than recommended in the quality code, it’s hard to deploy the old “diversity” argument when it’s the exposure of the data that drives up standards of behaviour.

Chooser looser

The report also usefully points out the fact that, unlike in the white goods sector, the chooser, user and payer roles are fatally stretched over time. Framed in the report as applicant, student and graduate, the stretch places the bulk of the power (and the focus of a group like Which?) in the chooser/applicant arena. But it’s perhaps here where the report the report could go further. In this user arena.

  • 92% of students were advised of or required to cover additional course costs
  • Seven in ten of them found out about them after enrolment (and so regarded them as hidden)
  • 58% of students reported experiencing a change to their course (like a change of campus or dropped content), a third of which thought the change(s) unfair
  • Only half of students with a problem complain and half of them felt the complaint was ignored

Imagine if car suppliers or holiday firms treated their customers like this – hiding costs and then not delivering that which was in the glossy brochure – yet here in HE the unspoken rule is that it’s OK, the underpinning assumption being that the co-producing, community regarding student needs to ignore their personal interests and allow an institution to tempt them in and rip them off, all in the name of the greater institutional good.

Value mustard

It’s the report’s solutions to this that are if anything disappointing – backing whatever the Competition and Markets authority come up with, new minimum standards for complaints systems and a standard format for HE contracts doesn’t seem to cut the mustard somehow.

It’s also deathly silent on the problems faced by the payer/graduate role – already treated scandalously by Government itself in a heavily regulated education debt system and doubtless set to be treated even worse when this system is broken up and liberalised in future years.

It at least argues that private HE should be subject to the OIA- something that the Lords resolved to agree with last week.

But perhaps tactically, it avoids the really radical stuff that would give students real power – like:

  • The right to switch provider after the first year
  • The right to appeal a result based on academic judgment
  • An independent complaints ombudsperson in every HEI
  • The right to proper funding of the independent advocacy function for students in every HEI (via the SU)

Nevertheless, it’s a well-researched, thoughtful and important contribution to the debate and one which the Competition and Markets Authority will doubtless be studying in detail following the publication of their latest consultation. And refreshingly, it’s a contribution that ultimately has the interests of students at its heart, rather than the rather staid, institutional and sector-focused efforts in this space in recent months.

A degree of value – Value for money from the student perspective can be downloaded here.

Update: Jim Dickinson talks about the new CMA guidance to universities:

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7 responses to “A degree of value?

  1. 1) In what universe are you entitled to think you are buying a product, probably get half the cost written off, and complain it is not value for money?
    2) The government is making you pay for the whole cost of your course, so of course you’re being ripped off – that’s intentional.
    3) If Which? can come up with better quality control and regulation than the systems of internal moderation, second marking, external examining, QAA, and the rest, let me know. It’s a hell of a lot better than the rest of the world’s HE has – as students who study abroad gratefully tell us. We do this to make sure that academic judgement is backed up by robust systems of moderation. If we allowed appeals against the judgement of markers, the now-vanishing minority who get 2:2s would bring an annual class action suit. And let’s not mention the lawsuits that would be brought by academics whose specialist expertise has been undermined by a non-expert Dean trying to placate a litigious student.
    4) University courses are taught by specialists. If one leaves, then their specialism is lost to the institution. There’s not a lot we can do about that. We don’t enjoy pulling modules, but it is sometimes unavoidable.
    5) If you did some reading you might get more out of seminars which are run on the basis that you might have bothered to think of something to say.
    6) If you don’t find your course challenging, that’s probably because you aren’t doing the work set, suggested or made available to you. Outside of classes, we expect you to read, do online learning, work on projects, learn a language. You will probably disappoint your employer as much as you have your tutors.

    1. Whilst I do sympathise with some of the above, I don’t find all of this true, and you make stark generalisations about students that I don’t necessarily agree with.

      1) You use the word ‘probably get half written off’ – there isn’t a probably here, you either pay-off the loan or you don’t. That, however is the agreement that the student makes with the Student Loan Company (and it’s a tenuous agreement at best – there are plenty of voices in the sector suggesting those terms might change) not the institution that you learn in. In terms of what the money is ‘buying’ then across the sector that is a fairly set concept mortgaged against future earnings – some will pay it back, some won’t, and some will never pay any of it back; the institution gets the same input regardless of this. At the end of the day, however, the student has accumulated the same amount of debt regardless of that outcome and has the right to question whether this is value for money (not necessarily so in the free education model, but in that case the tax payer has the right to question whether this is value for money).

      2) That depends on the course – there is plenty of cross-subsidy in the sector, as well as government grants for certain courses. We are in a market with a fixed price point, but a varying cost to the institution. The student investment is the same regardless of this cost, so it is again perfectly fair for some (not all) students to question this logic.

      3+4) You’re right about regulation, and the modules being pulled. The law suit argument is a straw man: no student could force a change of academic decision as it isn’t in the power of the courts to give.

      5) Of course some students do the reading, some don’t. Some times they see value in it, and sometimes they don’t – often that is a decision that is based on any number of things, and it’s a tad unfair to suggest that some students are dissatisfied because they aren’t doing the reading.

      6) ‘Learning a language’ isn’t the course though? It’s very easy to say some of these things some of most transformative educational experiences cost more for the students than that 9k. My own institution charges over and above the 9k for evening language classes, for example. In many institutions there is a quest for less flexible learning, not more.

  2. I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more detail on the surveys undertaken for Which? in order to justify setting aside the NSS outcomes. In addition to the surveys, focus groups with 64 students and diaries of 14 students from 5 universities is quite a slight basis to make sweeping recommendations.

    Which? do recognise that students are not consumers in the standard model, and here Liz’s points come in – students may have complaints about lectures moving etc, but sometimes that’s eclipsed by the number of students not turning up or not doing the work. Which? place great store in a revised KIS – it accords with their philosophy of the informed consumer – but is there evidence of students really running out of information in the KIS? When it was set up, HEFCE ran an extensive project on what questions should be in. The coalition won’t legislate again on HE, certainly not to put the KIS onto the statute book.

    I’m interested that Which don’t make more play on the issue of proviate providers. They do talk about ‘providers’ without differentiation, so maybe there’s an assumption of equality here, but that would seem a major issue – some ‘providers’ remain outside nearly all the structures – even the change to bring the private providers into OIA in the Consumer Rights Bill is still not comprehensive*.

    1. The Consumer Rights Bill, as with other parts of the ad hoc construction based on course designation, leaves open an unregulated part of the sector: that which has neither degree awarding powers or course designation. As course designation is current limited to places wanting to access student loans, it excludes providers with just PG provision or whose courses don’t fit.

      Am I right, then, that a private business school just offering PG or the New College of the Humanities are not regulated through BIS – only through the Home Office if they want tier 4 students?

  3. I’m sure there are valid criticisms in the Which? report but I am always amazed by how ready people are to dismiss the views of 60% of final-year undergraduates in the NSS. Why is it complacent to take their views seriously?
    And do Which? really believe that a third of graduates wouldn’t have gone if the fees were higher when trebling them had no discernible effect on full-time numbers?

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