Wholesale provider collapse should be the least of most students’ worries

In many ways, it’s not wholesale provider collapse that I’m most worried about. It’s what universities are doing to avoid collapse.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Last October, for example, I was sat in the cafe bar of one of a university’s satellite campuses when some sort of speed networking event for international students started up around me.

Listening in to the chatter, one of the things that kept coming up was the removal of the free shuttle bus that they’d been promised would run between there and student accommodation in the city half an hour or so away.

It’s still promised on one of said university’s web pages now, and was being talked about by student ambassadors on forums like the Student Room during what would have been those students’ application period.

As the event started packing up, I grabbed a couple of them. Both postgraduate taught students’ concerns about the location of the campus had been assuaged by the bus – it had formed a key part of their decision making.

Their decision to live in the city was about not feeling isolated from other students – now they felt isolated from those they study with. The only other options now involve very expensive taxis or a paid for bus service that doesn’t align to their timetables – and in fact doesn’t run between 9.30am and 3.00pm at all.

Then there was the SU officer I met last summer that had given up a promising career in her home country to pursue a British MBA on the advice of her mentor back home.

She’d specifically chosen a university with a campus in London that was offering a placement year. A month into her studies, which were much more theoretical than she’d expected, when she asked about the placement year, she was told that there “must have been some mistake” and that the option “had been withdrawn some time ago”.

Then there’s the countless SU officers I’ve met whose undergraduate programmes had become shadows of their former selves in the period between application and the moment in the second year when they were choosing final year modules. Swathes of choice gone, entire pathways swept away, and modules merged to “facilitate exciting interdisciplinary opportunities” that turned out to be a way of coping with someone leaving and not being replaced.

I’ve been coming across this sort of thing more often lately – facilities, services, pathways and programmes that get rationalised as times get tighter. And centrally, they look like wise and sensible options for universities facing a long-term freeze in the maximum tuition fee, rising costs, choppy demand and what feels like a flattening off of demand from international PGTs.

But from the student perspective, they stink. Contracts that apparently allow these sorts of changes are widespread despite CMA advice to the contrary, the Office for Students does pretty much nothing about it, HEFCW couldn’t be less interested if it tried and Scotland continues to assume that a free fees regime that collectivises the risks allows it to pull these stunts on fee-paying students too.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The application of consumer protection law to HE was never about making students more passive, or preventing universities from making sensible changes to programmes to keep them up to date – it was about ensuring that when students made choices based on information provided to them, that they could rely on what had been promised being broadly delivered – the “protections students can rightly expect under our new approach to higher education”, according to HE minister Chris Skidmore in 2019.

In England, the Higher Education and Research Act was supposed to go further still – its introduction of Student Protection Plans was supposed to temper the more marketised system being promoted in the measures. But it was clearly aimed at “challenger” providers, and has turned out to be an unenforced dud – pretty much every time a redundancy round is announced, the “live” SPP records the chances of having to do what the university says it is having to do as vanishingly small.

So a regime that is supposed to help warn students of risks isn’t being enforced, and when the risks crystallise the mitigation measures that OfS is supposed to have insisted on repeatedly turn out to be hopelessly inadequate. It’s telling that DfE’s Post-legislative scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 barely mentions these issues at all.

The point is that under the surface, there has been a lot of “market exit” in higher education over the past few years, and there will likely be a lot more in the months and years to come. The type I’m talking about might make sense if we were still collectivising all fees into “free education” – they’re the sorts of things we have to poke up with if we’re taxpayers that have to use democratic systems to balance what we want with what everyone else wants.

But when we decided, both for home and international students, to individualise most of the contributions for higher education into upfront or delayed-payment fees, we should have shifted into making it more difficult to make these sorts of changes. Yet outside of obscurely-worded disclaimers and unnecessary module revision processes, fundamentally neither universities nor the regulators around them have changed at all.

It means that as well as loading individual students with much more of the responsibility to pay for HE, we’ve also loaded significantly more risk onto them that their choice will have turned out badly.

And so given the parlous state of UK HE and the consultancy firms’ mooted survival tactics, the very least that those regulators could do is ensure that a system that is supposed to protect students actually does so.

3 responses to “Wholesale provider collapse should be the least of most students’ worries

  1. Jim spot on as usual. The consumer protection regime fails utterly to do its job in relation to the massive HE industry. The CMA issues ‘guidance’ in 2015 and 2023 that Us blithely ignore; the OfS belatedly gets Trading Standards to act in a few cases and we await the OfS naming & shaming the Us concerned; the OIA can’t hope to process the 150,000 student & ex-students signed up for the putative group litigation; the NUS is silent; the UUK has for decades ducked addressing the need for a fair, comprehensive, standardised U-S B2C contract; and Which? seems to have given up thinking about HE. CRA15 might as well not exist as far as HE is concerned! The only agency with credibility is the ASA which has repeatedly called out Us’ egregious misleading claims in adverts. The student deserves better.

  2. I am inclined to agree with much of what Jim (and David) have said. However, I would say that the institutions I have worked in have generally tried to take into account CMA considerations through internal approval and amendment processes. Sometimes these are over-ridden by events, senior management decisions and the like, which rather leaves things as a fait accompli. Of course the office that generally cares most about CMA is the quality office and with the advent of OfS and the reduction in stature of QAA, some institutions are paying less attention to what those offices are saying or, supposedly, cutting them back as extraneous. That may change again if any regulatory body ever takes CMA requirements seriously, but at the moment it seems that few (OIA excepted) seem to care about students.

  3. The concern for students is correct, but I wonder what else unviersities are to do? Internally we have had conversations along the lines of: if we are to continue to receive only receiving £9,250 per student, we may have to redseign our education provision so that it only costs that amount of money. Small modules and field trips or lab time would be under threat, and lectures or pre-recorded material would be used more. My institution is not there yet, but is taking small steps partly to avoid having to go further in that direction. The analysis is right – these sort of changes are much more likely than the ‘big provider going bust’ scenario.

Leave a Reply