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Keeping our promises to students

Government and its Augar panel wants better accountability from universities for state funding. Jim Dickinson asks where students fit.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In the chatter surrounding the Augar review and conceptions of course “value”, I saw lots of commentary on Twitter to the effect that all higher education is valuable.

I know what people were getting at, but surely it’s possible to draw a line… somewhere? Years ago now, just as I was getting involved in supporting national student representation, a college was offering a BA (Hons) in Furniture Design and Restoration that heavily promoted itself as being “the” qualification if you wanted to fix up old chairs and get paid for it. As it turned out, the college had unit farmed together a bunch of modules with spare capacity into a BA, but the restoration tutor had resigned and they couldn’t find another. The college tried to argue that the course was still valuable for all sorts of reasons, but the students who dreamed of working in antiques were less than convinced. Would we draw the line there?

How about the more recent example of a private college, where students received £259 million in three years via the public student loans system, had a QAA concerns report that found dropout rates of more than 30%, reports of fighting in the classroom, and said the college’s recruitment approach included “cold contacts” with prospective students “drawing attention to the potential availability of student loans.” The report said the college gave “insufficient emphasis and priority to assuring quality”, there had been “a lack of provision for appeals and complaints” and the college was slow to monitor the “effectiveness of its admissions procedures”. Surely we would draw the line before we got… there?

The news that a graduate who sued Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) received a £60,000 out-of-court settlement after claiming it “exaggerated the prospects of a career” got similar chatter. To be clear – ARU said the settlement was agreed with their insurer’s solicitors, and they didn’t support it – but it didn’t stop my timeline filling up with people bemoaning students’ “consumerist attitudes” because education isn’t “like buying a washing machine”. Meanwhile the Telegraph managed to conclude that in HE there “is no regulatory tool to ensure quality or seek redress” – at least not one it could see. “Let this be a warning to higher education: you must be 100% clear about the product you offer and whether you can deliver the goods”.


The same sort of chat greeted that Competition and Markets Authority guidance on student consumer rights a year or two back. Plenty of over enthusiastic marketing directors responded by creating institutional bureaucracies that sent messages akin to “you can’t change a single comma on course content for four years” to already beleaguered academics. That’s not what the law says, folks. What it does say is that if you offer the prospect of a career in software development through your computing degree at your Open Day, then both the software development tutors leave one summer and you withdraw the modules, the student “consumer” has been wronged – whether you (or the student protection plan) count the modules as “optional” or not.

Right up until Augar, the introduction of and every subsequent tweak to the fees system has been accompanied by rhetoric about students as consumers, most of which has not been met with any real improved rights or power for students. The student charters that accompanied Browne back in 2010 were the last real go at setting out for students what they ought to expect – watered down and long forgotten now. Former Universities minister Jo Johnson promised in July 2017 that his new OfS would examine contracts and legal redress for students – something that OfS first said it would do in May 2018, then revised to September 2018, then December 2018, then January 2019, then May 2019, then July 2019, and now is planned for a Board chat in November 2019. It’s my birthday in November. I’m probably safe to book the time off.

My heart awakes to the sound of silence

Augar itself? Silence. Here the customer is the government and the product is the graduate. The investment made by students – intellectual, financial and opportunity – apparently is not worthy of a single line that defines what students might get from their institution on the other side of the bargain, nor a word on what students are supposed to do if things go wrong.

The sector goes along with the idea that students aren’t consumers for all sorts of reasons.

  • “Education challenges you”, they say. So do books and films. But if there are 10 pages missing, or the cinema is full, I’d have consumer rights.
  • “No-one has a right to a degree, you have to put effort in”, they say. No-one has a right to be fit, but if the equipment in the gym is broken, or the instructor is clueless or careless (or ridiculously overworked), I’d have rights.
  • “Students should be treated as partners”, they say. Sounds fair enough when we’re talking about curriculum design, or institutional strategy, or making better use of feedback. But if the toilets are out of paper or the lecture theatre’s cold, it’s hardly OK to ask student “partners” to run up the shop or pop a penny in the meter.

And then there’s my favourite – “but the fee is subsidised” and “who knows how much students will eventually pay”. There are plenty of students for whom the fee is not subsidised, plenty pay upfront, and anyway – since when did a subsidy in an industry or a beneficial loan agreement deprive people of their right to get what they were promised?

Three wishes

The obvious wish is that students with grumbles or gripes work with their institution to fix them before things get to the stage of a consumer complaint or even legal action. But the idea that institutions who’ve got things wrong are keen to put them right – particularly in public – is often for the birds, because their lawyers and insurers are in their ear stressing the need to never admit liability. I’ve gathered hundreds of examples over the years where those in the middle mutter that they’ve got things wrong, but the letter from the top ties a complaint up in a technicality – or dismisses it as an exceptional anomaly, denying the evidence of anything more systemic. It’s not (for example) as if the institutions whose student complaints over strikes reached the OIA have written to all the other affected students to offer compensation.

Do things go wrong often? Maybe. OIA complaints figures don’t tell an accurate story (because they’re more likely to indicate responsiveness to complaints rather than nature and purpose per se), and nor do institutional complaints figures. Until we’re confident that students know their rights, and that they have confidence in exercising them given the object of the complaint also grades and judges them (and they’re often loathe to leave), we won’t really know. It would certainly be interesting to find out how much insurers are paying out to students who launch legal action, but good luck finding out. And in the competitive landscape we’re in, it would be extraordinary if there weren’t a bunch of cases of exaggerated claims when there are incentives to make them and almost no incentives not to.

An outright partial rejection

One of the more baffling aspects of the debate around students and higher education policy has been the outright rejection of students-as-consumers on the basis that it’s sometimes an ill fit. A students’ relationship with their institution is surely complex enough to be capable of fitting all sorts of models at different points – sometimes learner, sometimes consumer, sometimes partner and sometimes client. Rights associated with all of these models can, should and do co-exist. Students should beware of those trying to make them choose a single metaphor or model. And whatever the model, we’ll always have to take steps to correct (at least in part) the power imbalance between the individual and the institution that is supposed to (and resourced to) know better.

Maybe the answer (surely not beyond us) is a proper student rights framework that seeks to define our own multi-faceted model that works for students. The last thing any of us want is a more litigious complaints culture – only the ambulance chasers win in that scenario. But unless we’re clearer with students about their rights and entitlements, and have proper ways to support them in enforcing them, we may end up down that road by default.

What is clear is that when Augar says that organisations providing education and training “must be accountable for the public subsidy they receive” it’s pretty shocking that in the rest of the report, accountability over delivery to the student putting the bulk of the cash in never even gets a mention. At least this time for this tweak Augar’s panel hasn’t promised something that will never be delivered.

One response to “Keeping our promises to students

  1. this is all well and good, and nothing here is particularly objectionable. But what is missing is a consideration of the fact that a very large number of complaints (in recent years, the majority) to the independent adjudicator have not been about the quality of teaching or facilities per se, or mis-selling by universities, but about the fairness or otherwise of grades. The tricky thing would be to have a process that is fair to all with regards our promises to students, but does not act as a grade-grubbers charter

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