A degree of value?

Originally published on wonkhe

There are a lot differing views in the sector right now about the role of the market. Some seem to believe the market can solve everything and students are full blown consumers, making rational decisions in a market of choice.

There are those who reject all notions of student consumerism as neoliberal nonsense, regarding it as a conceit that fatally wounds the student-teacher partnership and treats HE as a good that it’s not.

And then there’s students themselves – usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.

Students ought therefore to be pleased with the latest contribution to the ‘Students as Consumers’ debate from consumer association ‘Which?’. The body that has historically focused on washing machines and kids’ car seats entered the HE foray seriously a few years back with public information website. Underpinning its offer has been an ongoing programme of research and policy work designed to influence the debate on HE regulation.

This latest report of theirs, A Degree of Value, is fascinating. Which? position both the report and the framing carefully – they are the first to accept that HE is not ‘a conventional market’ and take into account that students’ outcomes are co-produced. But once the preamble is done, the report (through some pretty robust looking quantitative and qualitative research) highlights some remarkable findings that contrast sharply with the overall sense of complacent satisfaction offered by the NSS:

  • Whilst the majority of students are satisfied with their course, one third of students disagree that their course is good value
  • A third of graduates say they wouldn’t go into HE if fees rose
  • Three in ten think their academic experience is poor value
  • Half found the amount of work they do demanding
  • Less than half found seminars worth attending

Of course, these are easy numbers to bat away – institutional leaders that for years have been relentlessly homogenising their offer to compete up the league tables suddenly argue that HE is in fact incredibly diverse and that comparing academic inputs is like comparing apples and oranges.

Which? disagree, arguing that putting data on contact hours, class sizes and teaching quality would both ‘be of value to some students but… will greatly strengthen the hand of regulators in overseeing overall standards’.

The Competition & Markets Authority have issued guidance to HE providers currently under consultation – read about it here.

As students’ unions that use NSS data for campaigning know all too well, in a sector where only 22% of students regard their feedback as prompt and where students work for a quarter fewer hours than recommended in the quality code, it’s hard to deploy the old “diversity” argument when it’s the exposure of the data that drives up standards of behaviour.

The report also usefully points out the fact that, unlike in the white goods sector, the chooser, user and payer roles are fatally stretched over time. Framed in the report as applicant, student and graduate, the stretch places the bulk of the power (and the focus of a group like Which?) in the chooser/applicant arena. But it’s perhaps here where the report the report could go further. In this user arena.

  • 92% of students were advised of or required to cover additional course costs
  • Seven in ten of them found out about them after enrolment (and so regarded them as hidden)
  • 58% of students reported experiencing a change to their course (like a change of campus or dropped content), a third of which thought the change(s) unfair
  • Only half of students with a problem complain and half of them felt the complaint was ignored

Imagine if car suppliers or holiday firms treated their customers like this – hiding costs and then not delivering that which was in the glossy brochure – yet here in HE the unspoken rule is that it’s OK, the underpinning assumption being that the co-producing, community regarding student needs to ignore their personal interests and allow an institution to tempt them in and rip them off, all in the name of the greater institutional good.

It’s the report’s solutions to this that are if anything disappointing – backing whatever the Competition and Markets authority come up with, new minimum standards for complaints systems and a standard format for HE contracts doesn’t seem to cut the mustard somehow.

It’s also deathly silent on the problems faced by the payer/graduate role – already treated scandalously by Government itself in a heavily regulated education debt system and doubtless set to be treated even worse when this system is broken up and liberalised in future years.

It at least argues that private HE should be subject to the OIA- something that the Lords resolved to agree with last week.

But perhaps tactically, it avoids the really radical stuff that would give students real power – like:

  • The right to switch provider after the first year
  • The right to appeal a result based on academic judgment
  • An independent complaints ombudsperson in every HEI
  • The right to proper funding of the independent advocacy function for students in every HEI (via the SU)

Nevertheless, it’s a well-researched, thoughtful and important contribution to the debate and one which the Competition and Markets Authority will doubtless be studying in detail following the publication of their latest consultation. And refreshingly, it’s a contribution that ultimately has the interests of students at its heart, rather than the rather staid, institutional and sector-focused efforts in this space in recent months.

A degree of value – Value for money from the student perspective can be downloaded here.

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