Dear students, only the Lib Dems can save you now

Originally published on wonkhe

The cost of higher education is front and centre of an election campaign for the second time in a row. For those of us close to the detail of HE policy, the broad brushes of an election are incredibly frustrating, but it’s nevertheless fun to watch both Coalition partners talk up just how wonderful £9k fees have been.

They conveniently forget that applications are down on 2010, that mature and part time are in collapse, that barely any of George Osborne’s extra places have been filled, and that those that have from poor backgrounds are mainly in pile em high, rip em off, cheap as chips private HE – the sector equivalent of celebrating access to After Eights because they now sell tiny, near-date boxes of them in pound shops.

Naturally, there are costs and there are costs, which is to say that there’s what it costs students (or graduates, or parents) and there’s what it costs to put on a course (and a bunch of research, a slice of bureaucratic waste and a 300k VC salary). The Tories may well further squeeze the unit of resource by asking that fee to pay for more things that the centre used to (see WP), and Labour may well renege on the promise to make up the missing £3k (especially when everyone that’s been charging £8.5 suddenly claims it really costs £10k to deliver courses). 

This relentless focus on the cost of HE always hides all sorts of differences – differences that are now so pronounced that everyone expects HEFCE’s review of quality assurance to result in a system even less useful than now. Any one of that dwindling number of applicants could end up paying £9k (or maybe £6k) for huge class sizes, or tiny ones; for trained and talented lecturers or terrible ones; for work properly externally moderated, or barely marked at all. They might end up with a bunch of hidden costs that pretend to be options, or find everything all included. When they need study support, or hardship funds, or to switch universities, they might get help – and they might not. And when they really need the students’ union, they could find themselves calling on well funded independent advocacy – or they might get a weak, glorified frat house – or nothing at all.

What’s remarkable is that finding any of the above out – actually understanding what it is that they are signing up to get into debt for – is nigh on impossible. But what’s perhaps even more remarkable is that some 18 years after the introduction of tuition fees there still isn’t a political party that’s cottoned onto the problem and developed a solution; all still falling into the trap of accepting that entry criteria and institutional age are somehow directly and linearly related to quality – as if taking the “best” students automatically means it’s the “best” university.

And despite the NSS and KIS, institutions still hate giving any proper information- with the modern open day and prospectus only serving to obfuscate, and even access agreements appear to resemble the Ratners problem (never say you’re less than the 9k best), and the DFS solution (have a high sticker price but give money back in fee waivers, bursaries and iPads).

So who can save students from investing their time, debt and youth in something terrible? Not Labour, loud on what you’ll pay but silent on what you’ll get. Not the Tories – vaguely promising a teaching quality framework that the sector will smother, and open data on employment outcomes that is likely to be a sinister Trojan horse to allow universities to break free and offer higher fees to students their banker friends can, er bank on.

No – it’s the Lib Dems to the rescue, the party promising a proper credit accumulation and transfer framework to help students transfer between and within institutions, an improved Key Information Set, a standardised student contract and legislation to reform regulation to improve student protection.

Of course, I say ‘promise’. Perhaps I mean ‘pledge’. Perhaps I mean ‘if we form a government all on our own’. Perhaps I mean ‘ideas my party keeps backing that I think are terrible but are easy to promise solemnly during an election only to drop them as soon as I sniff power’. Whatever, the good news for students is the bad news for the sector who resist regulation on the high altar of academic freedom – there’s still no money, doing most of the above is free, and it will all look highly attractive to a coalition minister of any stripe looking to make an impact whilst wielding a 25% departmental cut. Trebles all round!

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