Students can’t leave. And that protects providers.

When a student is advertised a course, a provider is committing, broadly, to delivering what it is promising.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Let’s ignore the pandemic for a moment. In England there’s a deal on offer – the student’s loan voucher gets combined with some money from government funnelled through OfS – student premiums and anything in what is now called strategic priorities funding.

Universities are expected to be able to deliver promises (facilities, services, module choices breadth etc etc) made four years out on a standard 3 year undergraduate course. So if we were into protecting students and there were potential volatilities, you would think we would take steps to mitigate against those volatilities.

As such, you can do one of three things.

  1. You could insist that every university has to demonstrate that it could withstand a major drop in numbers and a slashing of top up funding by demanding they each have much bigger reserves than are in place now, and that those funds be ringfenced for teach-out and teach-through in all circumstances.
  2. Or you could take steps to protect universities from major drops in numbers and from sudden dramatic cuts to top up funding by controlling the market and smoothing any funding reductions. But right now, we do neither, which is from a student protection perspective is really quite a scandal.
  3. The third option? Remove the volatility from your income by making it really hard to leave once you’re in.

Students can’t meaningfully hold providers to promises as this year has shown us, and they can’t really switch. The government can get away with sudden dramatic cuts to top up funding that can be implemented immediately, and cuts in real terms to the per student aspect of that top part of the deal. Student numbers also “can” be super-volatile, and in some speeches that’s part of the design. So a university can lose a lot of income very suddenly, and the student’s provision could then be in real trouble.

The “protection” on offer from OfS through student protection plans is almost completely meaningless – because it’s really only about cessation of education per se, rather than a major change to the provision’s depth, quality or surrounding services and facilities offer precipitated by a significant loss of funding. What is really going on therefore is that students’ inability to switch providers, and their desire to finish what they’ve started once they’re in, is what in and of itself delivers protection for universities in the absence of help from those governing or regulating the market.

What should happen is that the sector should turn around and say collectively that as it stands, it can’t be meaningfully compliant with consumer protection law – it can’t say it’ll keep its promises – because the neither the funding nor the market is stable enough. Either that, or providers should make promises on provision that are so wafer-thin as to precipitate individual provider collapse through under-recruitment.

The bottom line is that an undergraduate student who asks today “can you guarantee my course depth/breadth, plus the facilities and services you’re saying are there now can be delivered, for the full three years” would be being lied to if most universities said yes. That’s a scandal. And it’s also a real concern if we think that both the unit of funding per student, and the overall number of students, could be at risk in the response to the Augar review.

The point is that if the funding system we have involves students making a(t least a) three year commitment, the least the government should do is match that length of time over its part of the bargain, and take steps to generate market stability, or properly underwrite the delivery risks in the instability.

A *real* market regulator would know this, understand this and act accordingly. But as it stands, students enrolling this coming September are taking a very big gamble.

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