You only get what you pay for. Or do you?

Originally published on wonkhe

For as long as students have been paying (at least in part and/or in arrears) for their university education, an entire cadre of sector types have been arguing that when students are seen as consumers, bad things happen.

The news that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had a regulatory role to play in higher education was met with deep suspicion. Won’t inappropriate intervention from this uncouth bunch of washing machine regulators ruin the essential nature of co-produced education? Won’t bossy bureaucrats from the CMA meddle with the academic freedom of autonomous universities?

Last week here at UEA, the CMA intervened after the university made significant changes to the content of a course by introducing compulsory modules (limiting students’ choice of optional modules) and not properly informing prospective students who had received course offers about the changes. UEA regarded the changes as ‘minor’- letting itself off the hook on proper consultation and information – but both the students and the CMA have taken a different view, viewing them as ‘substantial’.

It’s a fascinating case because it opens up a real regulatory dichotomy for students. When students argue that they’ve been treated unfairly, the sector’s regulator, OIA, has to consider whether a higher education provider has followed its own internal rules. But then having not upheld a complaint, the CMA can come in and make clear that the rules weren’t fair.

This is hardly a satisfactory set of arrangements for students, and it makes Baroness Wolf and Baroness Brown’s proposed amendment (number 429) to the Higher Education and Research Bill to get CMA out of higher education altogether look decidedly dodgy.

These sorts of stories – as students get better at challenging unfairness – are not going to go away. Last year it emerged that a graduate from Oxford has decided to sue his university for £1 million, claiming that “appallingly bad” tuition cost him his first-class degree and therefore prevented him from having a successful career. The press ran with the usual cries of spoilt millennials. But in cases like this, it’s easy to see that students might have a point: that they do have a right to seek redress on teaching quality and quantity, or in consumer terms, ‘get what they’ve paid for’.

Translucent at best

Something interesting is going on in students’ unions this year. A whole clutch of unions are running campaigns around value for money concerning universities’ fees and finances. That they are having to do this is shameful, and a reflection on the abject failure of HEFCE’s long since abandoned nudge in this direction a couple of years ago. It is also one of the reasons why the shift from funder (HEFCE) to regulator (OfS) needs to mean more than just a logo change.

In November, Universities UK attempted to deliver some of this much-needed transparency by releasing an interactive explainer” showing “how universities in England spend their money, and how all of this ultimately benefits the paying student”. This was partly a response to last year’s HEPI/HEA Student Engagement Survey, which found that 75% of students “did not feel they have enough information on what universities spend their money on”. Yet UUK’s efforts managed to snatch opaque defeat from the jaws of transparency victory through a series of unpleasant distortions. “We spend £1.3 billion on student accommodation” it trumpets, burying the circa £2 billion that students pay for it in an already inflated housing market.

The clamour for financial transparency is a symptom of a wider problem that is the focus of the aforementioned court case at Oxford: more and more students feel that they are not getting what are paying for. The HEPI/HEA survey found that perceptions of ‘good value for money’ are falling everywhere, with strong evidence that students equate contact hours with good value. Students are particularly miffed that their money is used to cross-subsidise – both for research and for courses that are expensive to teach – yet the sector responds with ever more ridiculous attempts to confuse services with benefits as if doing so will help.

Delivering a service

While students are happy to argue that ‘tuition’ fees are probably paying for ‘tuition’, the ongoing debate about contact hours reached new heights of preposterousness in the aftermath of the HEPI/HEA study. The report reasonably concluded that students develop skills better through independent study rather than lectures or seminars, prompting a series of commentators to suggest that students’ ‘obsession’ with contact hours was somehow misplaced.

I go to the cinema to relax. I could probably derive more relaxation from reading a book in my house. That doesn’t mean that my local Odeon gets to take my ticket money, berate me for my obsession with films and send me off with a book and a mug of Horlicks instead.

I go to the gym to get fit. I would probably be fitter if I ate and drank less and did more walking. That doesn’t mean that my local Virgin Active gets to take my money, berate me for my ‘obsession’ with gym equipment, and send me off with a map and flask of Slimfast instead.

While some students do want skills from their degree experience, they reserve the right to want other things. Some want knowledge. Some want specialist skills and some more generic skills. Some derive emotional or social benefits from higher education. Some do not.

Though students want benefits from higher education, they are paying for a service. They are paying for the star teachers sold to them on open days, for the glittering libraries not to be full in the run-up to exams, for computers to work, for the optional modules to be available, assessment to be carried out with care and returned on time, and for labs and equipment that are fit for purpose.

That doesn’t mean that most students are arrogant enough to assume that merely paying £9k entitles them to a degree. But it does mean that as they sign up for a lifetime of debt repayments, the least universities can do is deliver what is promised, explain where their money has gone honestly and transparently, and support rather than berate them when they ‘obsess’ over not getting what was sold to them in a brochure.

Of course, teaching quality is just as important as quantity – HEFCE research demonstrates that “information about teaching qualifications has been identified as important to students”, and “is seen as an indicator of individual and institutional commitment to teaching and learning”. But quality and quantity are not always a trade off. Students feel that they’ve been sold some actual contact with actual people. And if they’re sold module choices and then don’t get them, that’s not academic freedom: it’s misselling.

Ultimately, for most students, “going to university is an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime event and they should enjoy the best possible experience. So it’s important that prospective students have accurate and up-to-date information when choosing their course and existing students are given timely information about any substantial changes that are made to their course”. That this is a quote from the CMA – a regulator outside of the sector rather than one from one of the myriad of agencies within it – is proof enough that treating students like consumers is occasionally much more valuable than the some of the more hysterical objections it causes.

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