Precarity robs students of agency and power

Jim Dickinson reviews work on vulnerable consumers and considers its relevance to higher education students that are struggling.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“Many of us can be vulnerable in certain contexts, such as when we have to choose between complex alternatives or make decisions on the basis of imperfect information.”

That sounds pretty much like the position students find themselves in when choosing both to go to university, and when choosing between universities – and never more so than over the past twelve months.

And that’s potentially a problem. Vulnerable consumers are more likely to make bad decisions, pay too much, and to not be able to avail themselves of appropriate redress if something goes wrong.

So it might surprise us to learn that while “consumer vulnerability” is a pretty well researched academic concept, and a fairly well established concept outside of education, it’s barely spoken of in the context of students as students (as consumers).

It’s not a phrase that manifests itself at all on the Office for Students website, and in wider circles tends only to attach itself to students in the context of things like pay-day loans rather than higher education itself.

Hot iron

I’ve been thinking about this having spent a bit of time a few weeks back chatting to an international student in London who had joined a rent strike. Imagine you’re an international student that has read this, but has heard your VC talk about the way in which fee refunds would bankrupt the institution:

The CMA is aware of examples where early years education settings have expressed their fears to parents that their service will not continue unless full (or substantially full) payments are continued to be met. Such a request may infringe a specific prohibition in consumer law that a trader must not require a consumer to buy a service on the basis that – should they not do so – the trader’s business or livelihood is at risk.

Then imagine you’re not getting a whole clutch of the facilities you thought you’d signed up to and need to succeed and you’d read this:

Consumers will normally be entitled to withhold payment for services that are not provided by the business or which the consumer is not allowed to use because of lockdown laws.

But then let’s say that you’ve been suffering from a deterioration in your mental health due to isolation, your family has become broke during the pandemic due to the global recession, and your university is threatening you with deportation if you don’t cough up the third installment of your fees. Are you a vulnerable consumer? You bet. Are you getting the intervention and help you need right now from those that are supposed to protect you? You are not.

I’ve generalised there but consider a case that’s been in the news recently. According to the Guardian, a computer science student from India faces deportation after he failed to attend lectures due to having to self-isolate and paying his fees eight days late:

The student says the news had left him “devastated and suicidal” and that his father, a farmer who had scraped together his life savings and borrowed money from relatives to get his son a British university degree, had been unable to sleep since hearing the news. He said his father had been sick with Covid and that had delayed him getting to his nearest bank to transfer money for the university fees.

Is that student a vulnerable consumer? I can’t think of many other consumers who face deportation if they don’t pay.

Students aren’t consumers

Generally our desire to see home undergraduate fees as a graduate contribution scheme, our distaste at the framing of students as consumers, and our belief in how benign and responsible the sector is, tend to push out and away from framing students as “vulnerable consumers” – with some of the implications and protections that might flow from that.

But is that wise? What signals does that send to students who will be navigating complex consumer relationships in the future on graduation? And what would farming of this type do to inform and address growing calls for tuition fee rebates and redress?

The danger is that in delighting in the ideological frame of being “anti consumerist”, we ignore the vulnerability end of the equation.

So let’s use the definitions for a moment. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) says that you can find vulnerable consumers in any situation in which an individual may be unable to engage effectively in a market – and as a result is at a high risk of getting a poor deal.

That’s all in a CMA paper on vulnerable consumers from 2019, in which vulnerability is defined in two ways:

  • “Market-specific vulnerability”, which derives from the specific context of particular markets, and can affect a broad range of consumers within those markets; and
  • “Vulnerability associated with personal characteristics” such as physical disability, poor mental health or low incomes, which may result in individuals with those characteristics facing particularly severe, persistent problems across markets.

I’d add a third, govern the year we’ve just had – vulnerabilities that manifest as a result of specific events, circumstances, contexts or crises – which obviously have the potential to insect with the above in particular ways.

CMA says that much of its project work has focussed on addressing market-specific vulnerability – but that there has been comparatively little focus on vulnerability associated with personal characteristics, or the challenges faced by certain groups of vulnerable consumers across different markets.

As such the paper (and a bunch of focus group and project work that it summarises) honed in on four areas – mental health, disability, age and low income households (defined as those with income below 60% of the median income).

Broadband provider

On mental health, CMA worries that there’s likely to be a lack of ‘“mental bandwidth” that’s required to be able to think about engaging with suppliers when, for example, there’s a problem. Its qualitative research found that participants with mental health problems were likely to fall into the segment of participants who stayed with their provider and did not switch, challenge or negotiate. This group were often aware that they could be overpaying for services and aware that switching, negotiating or redress were possible – but were not taking action because they felt that it would be too overwhelming and difficult.

It says that other research has found that consumers with mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression may avoid taking action because they require stability and routine to help maintain their mental wellbeing. The statistics around mental health and students generally, and specifically during the pandemic, speak for themselves here.

Its age research focussed on the elderly, on the basis of cognitive ageing and/or cognitive decline. It didn’t look at the other end of that telescope and attempt to think through what youth and relative immaturity might mean for our ideal of an empowered consumer.

It did find that age-related vulnerability is often linked to particularly stressful life events (there have been plenty of these for plenty of students this year) and that the elderly have a propensity to “stick with what you know” which can result in greater risks for older people of being left behind and/or receiving poor outcomes. The centrifugal impacts of housing contracts, parental and family expectations and fear of missing out, change and loneliness feel analogous here for university students.

It also found that while technology has the potential to alleviate some challenges for the elderly, digital developments can also create new barriers for older people, a central one of which is digital exclusion – a significant proportion of older people either do not have access to the internet or do not feel confident using it. Again, we know more now than we did at the start of the pandemic about the extent of a digital divide amongst students too, and what it can do to a student consumer’s availability to make use of the services and activities on offer by a provider.

Its concerns when it comes to Disabled people include access to goods and services, persuading service providers to make reasonable adjustments when they’ve not been anticipated, and extra costs due to an impairment or condition.

Scope highlighted its research on the “disability price tag” which estimates that disabled consumers face average additional costs (after deducting support and other benefits) of around £583 per month (on specialist equipment, more complex insurance policies, higher energy bills etc) and there’s similar problems in higher education and the student experience despite the existence of support schemes.

CMA has spent some time thinking about the intersections of age, disability and mental health in its detailed work on the care home sector, which feels oddly similar to some aspects of the student accommodation sector when described:

We have found that many residents and their families have a very poor understanding of how the social care system works, what services and information is provided by the state, and what is required of the individual. Representatives find it difficult to make complaints and seek redress, partly due to complaints systems being perceived as confusing and poorly signposted. People were also worried that if they complain, there could be reprisals against the resident receiving care, or their friends and relatives could be stopped from visiting them.

And then there’s those on low incomes. I won’t repeat the point about how we measure households on a low income here – suffice to say that it won’t surprise you to learn that in some contexts those on low incomes get good (in terms of price) but sometimes flawed (in terms of access to quality) deals (on things like food shopping), but when it comes to things like access to financial services – not so much.

Addressing vulnerability

Once you’ve identified consumer vulnerability, the important thing is then to do something about it. On care homes, for example, CMA argued that sector regulators should embed an assessment of complaints systems within provider evaluation, in particular to include an assessment of what each provider does in practice to direct people to third parties such as advocacy services that may be able to help. If only.

We can’t even get right what students can and can’t complain about.

It also argues that sector regulators should assess how effectively complaints and feedback systems work in practice. Where there are deficiencies, it says, regulators could recommend appropriate steps such as appointing feedback champions. Yet OfS continues to be squeamish about that sort of stuff, and it’s not really in HEFCW or SFC’s remit.

It also calls on national governments to review the coverage of advocacy services and consider increasing availability where there are deficiencies – as opposed to, say, moaning about SU sabbatical officers or a free speech crisis that doesn’t really exist.

CMA also suggests bespoke remedies or additional protections for different groups of vulnerable consumers (while palming all work on students off on OfS despite CMA having a UK-wide remit), enhancing reputational incentives (which implies a need to tackle the old “you’re lucky to be here/there” syndrome in lots of parts of our sector), and the need for targeted and sector wide investigation and enforcement action when there are questions over compliance (as opposed to barely mentioning students at all since the start of the pandemic).

In the foreword to the work, outgoing chair Andrew Tyrie argued that:

There has been a widespread erosion of trust in markets, and the CMA and other regulators can and should be playing an important role in arresting and reversing that loss of trust.”

In higher education, now would be a good time to start, wouldn’t it?

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