Students don’t need more markets, but collective choice and voice

Originally published on wonkhe

Over here in students’ union-land, it’s handover time, with meeting rooms full of jaded departing sabbatical officers introducing the cast of characters and committees that make up a university to excitable and ambitious newbies.

It’s an important process- mainly because those new to the system tend to blithely assume that ‘the university’ is centrally managed, consistent, and agrees with itself. As we all know, the truth is much more complex.

There have been a similar set of category errors in play this month over TEF. I can’t find a lot wrong with putting metrics in the mix when making judgements and assessments. But to suggest that the precise collection of metrics with their precise weighting is somehow innately in all students’ interests is preposterous. As is the aggregating of all the metrics relating to different student experiences on different programmes into a single institutional score. That this is then further boiled into one of three medals, well, it’s almost as ridiculous as the UK degree classification system!

No wonder the indignant Bronze holders from the Russell Group are submitting an academic appeal, although it’s hard to see what their ‘extenuating circumstances’ are. They were certainly fit to sit.

So just as I’m quick to correct new student officers when they describe ‘the university’ as a single coherent thing, I’m also interested when people do the same with ‘students’. We are, of course, about to get an Office for Students. The student interest is about to be re-inserted into policy discourse, albeit with a new frame. Students and their representatives are unlikely to view the appointment of the head of universities’ lobby group as OfS chief executive as an optimistic indicator that their interests will be championed over those of providers. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

In the meantime, it seems to me that the OfS chair’s view on ‘students’ – and their relationship to education – matters quite a bit.

Enter Sir Michael

The first thing to say about Sir Michael Barber’s speech to UUK conference a fortnight ago is just how little it mentions students. There are no personal anecdotes about contact hours here, or reflections on relatives’ experiences in higher education to justify regulatory intervention. No references to HEPI surveys or quotes from course reps. In fact, on first reading, it’s almost impossible to imagine who Sir Michael thinks students are, or indeed what the problem is that OfS will seek to fix.

I found a copy of a report authored by Sir Michael, from a conference called ‘Reforming public services: 21st-century public services, putting people first’. It’s highly illuminating because in it he describes three strategies for regulating public services that can be used depending on circumstances. These are also outlined in his recent book, How to Run a Government.

‘Command and Control’ is Barber’s first option. It’s best used “when you are trying to establish some minimum standards in a particular area…when the service is awful… or in an emergency…some forms of really vigorous implementation are necessary”. Given that he believes “higher education sector is a jewel in the country’s crown”, it’s probably a safe bet to suggest that Barber doesn’t think that this strategy is required with OfS, however much crowing from the sector about threats to its autonomy.

“Quasi-Markets” are Barber’s second option. These are used “when the individual can have choice… in health and education, for example (but not in policing and criminal justice) where the diversity of supply is a genuine good. Here the challenge is to build in equity”. This is much more like the model Barber outlines in his speech. “Our student-focused view of the market will lead us to design regulation that reflects how students actually make decisions”, he says. “The Office for Students will draw from behavioural science to ensure that would-be students are empowered, not overwhelmed”.

What’s interesting about this option is how different it is from his third – “Devolution and Transparency”. This later went on to become something called “Collective Choice and Voice” in the late-Blair/Brown years. This approach to reform involves ever more transparent data that users can use to debate and define standards with public service professionals, and the voices of empowered users being deployed to create accountability is also in the mix. “Co-production” is a central mantra. Yet this strategy should only be used, argued Barber, when the individual choice doesn’t apply – or when trying to move services from “good” to “great”.

Chooser, user, payer and beneficiary

While the lazy route is to complain that tuition fees have made students ‘customers’, I’ve pointed out on Wonkhe before that unlike in the white goods sector, it’s because the chooser, user, and payer roles of the purchasers are fatally stretched over time and that undermines the consumer power model in higher education. Almost all public policy interventions aimed at empowering the student in recent years have been obsessed with empowering the ‘chooser’ role – in other words, empowering applicants.

Barber’s speech doesn’t divert from that orthodoxy. He ponders what models might “offer students choice” and argues that “students will be able to make better-informed decisions as they choose between courses and institutions”.

The problem is that the student interest is more than just what looks attractive at the application stage. Higher education is a one shot experience: a high investment, long term relationship that is characterised not by lots of choices, but by dependency on a power relationship that is only rarely disrupted by leaving one provider for another (as in any other market).

One could be forgiven for arguing that this is a trap. We know that once at university, 92% of students are advised of or required to cover additional course costs that they didn’t know about when applying. 58% of students report experiencing a change to their course (like a change of campus or dropped content), a third of which think the change is unfair. Only half of students with a problem complain, and half of those that do felt the complaint was ignored. These are experiences of users, not choosers. “Collective Choice and Voice” could make the most difference here; not a subject level TEF.

Or take the marginalised. Imagine being a nursing student that feels bullied on placement but daren’t speak out. Or a PhD associate tutor that knows that the way work is allocated in the department is done with a nod and a wink but feels powerless to report it. It’s in these user roles that regulation needs to empower actual students, rather than just applicants.

Whither student voice?

The sad bit is that until Jo Johnson, OfS, and all its related paraphernalia came along, higher education was moving in a good direction towards “Collective Choice and Voice”. Readers of a report of the Commons Public Administration Committee from 2008 will recognise practice that has emerged in universities. There’s lots on making data and metrics available for users and their representatives to use to create accountability suited to that service or organisation. It rehearses the benefits of citizen choice and funding following choosers. But it’s vivid on user voice and co-production too. Recognising that “user voice” can sometimes be captured by those with sharp elbows, there’s also lots on ensuring that the user’s voice is evidenced, and all users are supported.

Thanks to NUS and QAA, students’ unions, their officers, and staff working in quality and student engagement, many universities have been pioneering and embedding ‘user voice’ for over a decade. QAA institutional review has given students the opportunity to submit a student submission for some years now. I have been told countless tales of long standing problems being fixed and investment ramping up as a response to these submissions.

Yet this co-production style of user involvement feels coldly absent from the regulatory landscape we are moving into now. DfE were at pains to argue that a mandatory student submission into TEF would not be appropriate. And back at the ranch, there are scores of subject-level TEF exercises going on that do involve the pesky student voice, not as part of the mock assessor, but as part of the mock assessed.

It’s a dangerous move. By assuming that applicant choice is the power lever (when once enrolled, it is nothing of the sort), our new regulatory system threatens to trash decades of expertise and robust practice built up in the profession of student representation. But it also threatens real ideas woven into the fabric of UK higher education: of co-production of education, of challenge to authority and received wisdom, and of decisions made in the glare of public scrutiny. These are things that, last time I checked, most senior academics used to believe in.

It could be that I’m wrong. Maybe Barber and Dandridge know all of this and are waiting on the architecture around them to form before they start designing regulatory interventions that empower users as much as TEF is supposed to help choosers. I do hope so. Because although there is no shared or agreed purpose of higher education, I would like to think that it remains the case that co-production, challenge to authority and received wisdom, and public accountability, all remain pretty core.

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