Regulation for all (apart from students)

Originally published on wonkhe

Another week, another report is published on the gaps in regulation left by the Government’s interesting new take on consumer-focused reforms; triple fees, publish a white paper offering protections, fail miserably to implement them – in that order. Last week the Higher Education Commission published a report in to the state of regulation in UK higher education.

You might consider it ironic that a report supposedly concerned with the student interest be created by a commission with the all of the conceivable interests represented on it other than students (who needs a student voice when PWC, Pearson, Universities and Mission Groups need to get their views in). Ironic or not, it wouldn’t matter if the proposals in the report were helpful. Or actually did anything to protect students.

But they don’t. In truth the Commission’s proposals do what most other reports of this nature do – they tie themselves up in esoteric debates about state control verses institutional autonomy, student as consumer or partner, and multiple or singular regulatory bodies, and in doing so miss the reality of what students face and what they need from a regime designed to protect their investment of time, effort and deferred debt into a programme of study.

What do I mean? Well, take these for starters:

  • The proposals don’t require institutions to clarify what students might get for their fee. Making clear what is and isn’t included would stop students being ripped off and having to fork out for hidden course costs.
  • The proposals don’t cover what happens when a healthy institution closes a course – much more common than an unhealthy institution failing corporately & completely.
  • The proposals offer nothing on swifter or more effective resolution of complaints – a huge issue across the sector.
  • The proposals do nothing to protect student access to advocacy in the event of an issue (some institutions fund students’ unions to do this. Some do not).
  • The proposals don’t do anything to ensure that institutions are co-governed by students (where their interests can be represented) or even that institutions are required to consult with them.
  • The proposals do nothing to prevent asset stripping of institutions.

I could go on. Even the section on the failure regime comes to the right conclusion whilst missing the point. Comparing a proposed fund to insure against institutional failure to that used in the travel industry, the report states that “travel agents pay £2.50 into a fund for each passenger who books through them”, only to reflect some institutions’ view that this would place “unfair costs” on traditional universities that would have to pay for the privilege of assisting new “dubious” providers.

The problem here (and everywhere else in the report) is the framing. Set aside the fact that the proposals don’t offer the same protections that even the package holiday regime does. Set aside the extraordinary arrogance of elite institutions, deliberately forgetting how their financial advantage has been built up and funded by the taxpayer over a long period of time. Set aside the fact they’re supposed to be charitable institutions – and remember this: it’s not travel agents or institutions that pay – it’s tourists or students.

Ask students if they’d be prepared to chip in to help other students ripped off by a Government-approved University going under, and my guess is we’d get a different answer.

Of course, the predictable response will be that the sort of protections outlined above are an ideological nightmare, reductively diminishing the role of students and universities to that of a financial customer and provider transaction. But that’s one debate we desperately need to move on from. Significant amounts of time, money, and opportunity are being laid on the line by learners. The least we can do is make sure that their investment is treated as seriously by the regulatory regime as a fortnight in Magaluf.

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