The approaches of the major parties to tuition fees as we approach this week’s general election could not be more contrasting.
Whether we end up with free tuition or more of the same after Thursday, what will not change is the need for the provision of effective information to help students understand what higher education costs and the support available to them. In 2018 national research undertaken by Universities UK, in collaboration with the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) found that majority of students felt they were not receiving enough information on the costs of HE. Following on from the research UUK and NEON earlier this year convened a student finance information advisory group chaired by Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University. The group included the Student Loans Company, UCAS, The Student Room, Barclays, the NUS and several universities. The aim was to look at how the provision of student finance information could be improved and the issues in highlighted in the 2018 report addressed.
Developing a standard
It was clear from looking at the work of the group, and also the wider range of activities across the sector that considerable efforts are being made to communicate information on student finance to learners. The Student Loan Company alone handles over 4 million calls annually and UCAS communicates with over 700,000 students and potential students while every university has some form of finance advice and support function. This breadth is a strength in that it allows tailoring of information to different needs but it also presents a challenge. The differing messages bring confusion alongside clarity for students, their parents/carers and others who support them. The group were clear that more coherence is needed and a more joined-up approach amongst the organisations who are providing student finance information. Developing an industry standard of core messages differentiated by the age of learners that providers of student finance information could be invited to sign up to would be a starting point.
Out of the loop
This standard should be a platform for the provision of better and more targeted information, but needs to go alongside a focus on equipping students with the skills with the ability to navigate their way through what is at risk of becoming an information jungle. There is some exciting, innovative approaches being attempted using social media to give students information in ways that young people in particular engage with today. However, the target groups for this work and especially those who come from backgrounds where HE progression is not the norm need the support to develop the capabilities to navigate their way through what is provided, select from it and use it to make informed choices. This need for capacity building is why the group also highlighted the importance of ensuring that student finance information is integrated into broader information, advice and guidance work in schools/colleges but also for adults. The latter group are not receiving the same level of attention where information provision is concerned and what they need has to be packaged in a different way to what young people receive.
Finally some of the actions suggested above can, and should, be led, by the providers of information themselves. However, policy makers have a crucial role. The approach of successive governments to providing student finance information since 2012 has combined national advertising, an annual programme of school roadshows and increasing amounts of online information. That students and their supporters know what cost of HE providers is, it is paid back after their course finishes and loans are is not enough. They need to know more and also know it earlier – roadshows with sixth formers is too late. A more strategic and comprehensive approach is needed which raises the bar where providing financial information and support to students is concerned. The cost of HE to students matters but so does communicating it properly.