Student approval ratings are abysmal – universities need effective regulation

Originally published in the Guardian, 10th April 2017

Imagine if a major car manufacturer released a new model that 25% of drivers couldn’t agree was “running smoothly” after three years of ownership. Or a major driving school where one in four customers said they had not received “sufficient advice and support” before their test – or where almost as many couldn’t bring themselves to agree that feedback on their driving “had helped them clarify things they didn’t understand”.

For any service sector with humility, these statistics would be a source of shame, and a reason for regulators to intervene. But in higher education, our funding council took the most recent National (final year) Student Survey and wrote that “this year’s survey remains very positive, demonstrating the commitment of all higher education providers to deliver high quality teaching and learning for their students”.

For taxpayers, students (and now the National Audit Office), this is about value for money. Back in 2013, the then higher education minister David Willetts said that “students will be asking what they are getting for a fee of £9,000. I answer that it is to pay for their teaching not to cross-subsidise research. I hope and expect to see a decline in the number of students with such low contact hours”. Yet rather than improving, student perceptions of “good value for money” have collapsed – from 53% in 2012 to just 37% today.

Seven years after the “battle of Millbank”, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the allocation of precious parliamentary time to a higher education bill by the government might fix some of the injustices involved in the purchasing of a university education – but you’d be wrong. For while we remain obsessed with a headline undergraduate fee level of £9,000, politicians appear to be unconcerned with what that pays for, where the money goes, and what happens when students don’t get what they were promised.

Whereas in press regulation the playbook for resisting reasonable regulation is to shout “press freedom”, in higher education the game of the lavishly rewarded vice-chancellor set is to cry “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy”. It’s a right invoked to conjure up the image of brave academics challenging convention and standing up to tyrants, but then gets grubbily used by the great and the good for their own tyrannical purposes.

Want to challenge the mark you’ve been awarded by an overworked, stressed-out lecturer marking 200 scripts a night? You can’t challenge “academic judgment”, one of the only professions left where a blanket ban on challenges to “reasonable skill and care” still holds.

Want to find out the extent to which your tuition fees subsidise research? Want to know how much humanities subsidise Stem? Some 75% of students want more information about how their tuition fees are spent, but universities resist publishing data in comparable form, claiming “autonomy” to spend tuition fee income on other things.

Want to find out the social make-up of the university’s medical or accountancy students to ensure that pressure is on to diversify our top professions? Even the government’s own higher education access regulator can’t do that – prevented by law from intervening even at subject-cluster level to urge action because of “academic freedom”.

And don’t expect the government’s vaunted “teaching excellence framework” to come close to achieving its purpose of driving excellence in teaching. Its ragtag collection of proxy metrics doesn’t even include one on teaching, and its focus on institutional averages hides differences in performance between subjects and departments within universities that are so vast as to make the assessment meaningless for students choosing courses. Any suggestion of taking this down to the subject level? No. It’s been kicked into the long grass by vice-chancellors and lords.

There is a reasonable argument within higher education that regards students being seen as “consumers” as a problem. Educational outcomes aren’t bought and sold, they’re co-produced; and just as customers of the local gym have to turn up and pump some iron to get fit, so students have to take some responsibility for their own learning to get their qualification and progress their career.

But the essential nature of education as a service – and the personal debt now being piled on to those who enter higher education at 18 – also means that students and graduates need to have some say over what is provided. Higher education bill scrutiny in the upper house could have been used to compel universities to publish what students will get for their fees, or to prevent the government retrospectively changing student loans terms.

Instead, months after the Brexit damage has been done, the Lords has adopted the vice-chancellors’ phony war over international students’ inclusion in net migration figures – ringfencing the cash cows while doing nothing to stem the racism directed at migrants who aren’t in higher education.

Most of the UK’s higher education is good. Our research is world class, our teachers are talented and most people working in management mean well. But the misguided belief of the great and the good that their mere presence and attitude is enough to protect people at the margins of institutions from facing injustices when things go wrong is what regulation is supposed to correct.

Despite the proposal for an Office for Students, that the higher education bill will shortly complete its journey through parliament doing little more for students than legitimising a further increase in their fees tells us all we need to know about whose interests this government is prioritising.

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