Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

According to the polls, a political era will soon be coming to an end.

Back in 2011, the Westminster government’s White Paper on the sector – called Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System – ushered in what many would regard as 14 years of hyper-marketisation.

Its central idea was that students were to be “put in the driving seat” – both through choice and voice.

A sweeping away of number controls was to have provided the ultimate demand-led system – programmes would reflect their choices, and providers would compete to offer the best courses and facilities.

Much of that pro-market rhetorical framing disappeared when David Willetts left office – replaced with complaints that students don’t, in fact, know best over everything from the subjects they seem to want to study to their “woke” demands for curriculum reform.

But while the funding for it has been shaved, the basics of the system have remained. And the danger is that failure is framed only in financial or culture wars terms – and that more money, or a dialling down of the culture wars, would fix everything.

That’s dangerous both because there’s not a lot of money around, and because we have a global political climate that will continue to push populism – blaming education and its ideological capture for the problems that people face.

But it’s also dangerous because it hides the wider and deeper failures of Students at the Heart of the System – given that almost all of the measures designed to improve choice and voice have gone wrong, and those designed to protect students when things go wrong have proved inadequate.

Debt at the heart of the system

The paper opens by explaining the way in which £9k fees would deliver savings to help address the large budget deficit that was around in 2019 without cutting the quality of higher education or student numbers, and bringing more cash into universities – (re)balancing the financial demands of universities with the interests of current students and future graduates.

At the time, the idea was that students from lower-income households would receive more support – and although many graduates were to pay back for longer, their monthly outgoings would be less and the graduate repayment system would be more progressive.

We’ve talked before here about the way in which these big burden shifts from state to graduate have tended to finance expansion and support for students – and the problem for Labour now is that the latest shift saw the Treasury pocket the savings, starving universities and students of resources in the process.

“But our reforms are not just financial”, says the intro. It also pledged a “renewed focus” on high-quality teaching in universities so that it has the same prestige as research, to “empower prospective students” by ensuring much better information on different courses, and a “new focus” on student charters, student feedback and graduate outcomes – all via a “new regulatory framework” with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) taking on a major new role as a “consumer champion”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a system for securing students’ interests that shifts emphasis a little from collective compromise and student representation towards individual protection – especially when you’re shifting the balance of contributions that each student makes from the state to the individual.

But ironically we’ve ended up with a system that appears to have in many ways weakened the former while failing to provide the protections implied in the latter – partly because pretty much all of the decisions to balance students’ interests with others are now loaded onto universities with tighter budgets, while the law and governments pretend that individual agreements, rights and complaints are enough.

Measure for measure

There were plenty of specific measures to deliver the agenda. In support of fair access and retention, the White Paper argued that was “essential” to ensure institutions receive sufficient funding to cover the additional costs of supporting both disabled students and those from low participation backgrounds to achieve their potential. Today it’s increasingly clear that government thinks it’s for other students’ tuition fees, rather than taxpayer funding, to cover those costs – as the support it offers centrally dwindles down.

On “well-informed students driving teaching excellence” we were actually promised a mixture of choice and voice. Most of the promises on providing course information to students – driven from HEFCE-commissioned research into the information students said they wanted to inform their decisions – have ended up watered down. And there’s no sign at all of “anonymised information about the teaching qualifications, fellowships and expertise of their teaching staff”, or “the size of the different kinds of class (lecture, seminar etc) that they can expect.”

The white paper said that as students become more discerning, it expected they would increasingly want to know how their graduate contributions were being spent. The Higher Education Public Information Steering Group was asked to consider whether that sort of data should form part of the wider set of information institutions were being asked to provide for prospective students. It never happened – and how the sector struggles to explain to itself, let alone students or decision makers, where the money goes.

A recognition that students applying for taught postgraduate courses would benefit from being able to access standard, comparable information about the range of courses on offer was supposed to lead to both a PG Key Information Set and a National Student Survey of taught postgraduates – a long forgotten aim of an Office for Students that barely ever talks about anything other than undergraduates.

UCAS was asked to make available, course by course, data showing the type and subjects of the actual qualifications held by previously successful applicants. That never happened. And the SLC and UCAS were told to develop a single application portal and integrated application processes for both higher education and student finance applications to provide a “seamless customer experience where data common to both applications is entered only once”. That didn’t happen either.

Improving the experience

On “A better student experience and better qualified graduates”, we were told that the government would help higher education institutions to create a “learning community” where engagement of students is encouraged, their feedback valued and complaints are resolved transparently and as soon as possible. OfS killed off NSS questions on community, feedback being valued remains a consistently low score, and little happened on complaints.

Students were promised a push on campus ombuds to resolve their complaints at an early stage, time targets for the resolution of cases, and a kite-marking scheme for complaint processes. None of that came.

A national working group had recommended that each institution have a student charter to set out the mutual expectations of universities and students. But not only was the group wary of setting out rights that students could rely on, it escaped the initial pledge that government would consider whether they should be made mandatory in the future. Few still have one now.

It noted that many universities in other countries used student evaluation of teaching surveys to provide feedback on modules – and in some cases made summary reports (and descriptions of changes made as a result) available online. That’s an agenda that feels like it’s gone into reverse today – despite a White Paper expectation that all universities “publish summary reports of student evaluation surveys by 2013/14”. It’s a target that’s still not been met over a decade on.

The White Paper welcomed a joint NUS/Higher Education Academy student engagement project, and championed a UK-wide student-led awards scheme for excellent teaching, based on an “educational partnership” between students, their tutors, and institutions. SLTAs do still exist, but the idea that best practice established by that national work is being “communicated and used to enhance teaching quality across the sector” is for the birds.

A duty of care

“Higher education institutions have a duty to look after the welfare of their students” continued the chapter, only for the government to disavow that supposed duty amid a series of student suicide cases. It was pleased that QAA saw students not just as recipients of information on outcomes but also as participants in quality assurance reviews – only for OfS to kick them off its inspection teams later in the decade.

QAA was also asked to publish reports of institutional reviews written with prospective students and their advisers in mind – and then the government oversaw QAA’s reviews being replaced by a massively misleading medal scheme and “risk-based” inspections that never seem to report.

It proposed unrestrained recruitment students scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level – only to then take restraints off altogether, subsequently complaining that universities were recruiting students of wider ability, choking the funding required to enable said students to do well. And it promised an expansion in high-quality franchising – only for that also to fail a few years later, and fail again in recent years.

Promises of more generous financial support for part-time and low-income students lie in tatters. A new National Scholarship Programme lasted two years, only to be revived as an idea (but never implemented) during the Augar debate. A “single access point” to national online and telephone services for young people and adults, and face-to-face careers guidance for adults, never came either – and nor did a national quality standard for the new careers service.

It also said that those from less privileged backgrounds faced a number of barriers to accessing the professions – yet its access regulator in its various guises has resisted publishing or pushing on access performance by subject ever since.

It was keen that the lead national regulatory body be given a new, explicit remit to promote the interests of students, including as consumers, with a duty to take competition implications into account when making decisions on funding – there’s little evidence of any that inside OfS.

And “not-for-profit institutions” were to be able to access grants to fund additional costs and public policy priorities that could not be met by graduate contributions alone – only for for-profit providers to end up topping up their dividends through OfS registration and franchising.

A decade of failure

That is, by any chalk, a hell of a lot of policy failure. Some were just forgotten about. Some weren’t subject to anything like the kind of push that was needed. Some fell by the wayside when the government lost interest. Some of them were just bad ideas.

Not all of them – especially the voice and rights ones – were terrible. Universities in much less-marketised systems across Europe seem to be better at providing programme flexibility, rights to individually and collectively influence courses and strategic decision making, faster and more local independent resolution of complaints, and proper engagement of students in quality.

But it often feels as though the government’s heart was never in collective voice – and on individual choice, it now appears to detest those being made by students while failing to offer the protections that asking them to pay more themselves implied.

Whether the reasons were inappropriate ideology, provider-captured sector resistance or just practical problems, the overall promise – that students would be put at the heart of the system – has manifestly not been met.

Pretty much the only aspect that survived intact was the removal of number controls – which students are now paying for through worse courses, woefully inadequate levels of student support, and rights they can’t enforce. Any new government will have much more to fix – and more policy to develop – than just funding.

4 responses to “Whatever happened to students at the heart of the system?

  1. And the cuts are leaving people who genuinely care about their students and want to help them succeed so burned out from doing the additional work required due to repeated culling of both academic and support staff that they are leaving the sector. Which is what I am about to do.

  2. Thanks, this learning should be applied to the growing wave of community-led initiatives (in the sector and elsewhere). The idea is great, but it won’t lead to great outcomes if it’s not supported and resourced long-term.

  3. OK. Well what if I said there is more than enough evidence of bad teaching in some Russell Group universities. But still students keep choosing them. I’ve spoken to many an unhappy student who, when I asked, “why did you choose to study at somewhere that you suspected was terrible?” replied “perceived prestige”. This is a well known problem with markets and the usual solution is an expert and hard-nosed regulator with suitable powers. If a university was threatened with losing the title “university” then “BigCIty University” (soon to be BigCity Polytechnic) would fix itself PDQ. So, yup, it’s a policy failure, but it’s a failure based on a fallacy that education is a mass market with perfect information and flexible consumers. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

  4. I would just note that the English HE system isn’t ‘hyper-marketised’. It’s somewhat marketised. One of the great problems is that the demand side is largely market-driven but there are no equivalent supply-side reforms that enable providers to easily merge, ally and otherwise respond to changing demand. It’s lop-sided, and will remain so unless HEIs work out how to ally, merge or otherwise combine.

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