Consumer analysis

February 27, 2014

In response to my article “Higher education is not a fridge, Which? ‘Best Buy’ does not apply” (13 February), Sonia Sodha, head of public services policy at Which?, says that while the lack of competition on the price of university tuition fees was “predictable”, she believes in “the importance of a strong consumer voice representing the student interest” (“Students need a tough consumer advocate”, Letters, 20 February).

I share her concern that students should be well informed about the course and institution they choose. For their educational benefit, they should have access to this information whether the degree costs £9,000 or is free. However, when Sodha states that “there must be better consumer protections” for students, the focus of her good intentions is misdirected. The pedagogic space between a student and a teacher is not a consumer relation. The only consumer relationship that an undergraduate in England has is with the Student Loans Company as a proxy for government. Which? is in danger of confusing the policy disaster of student loans, in which public borrowing is rerouted as an individual debt, with an actual marketisation of higher education.

I hope that Which? will put its considerable authority behind scrutiny of the proposed sell-off of the student loan book, whereby school-leavers who were “sold” a financial product on one basis, by a lender with an absolute monopoly, are now as young graduates at risk of having their terms of repayment rewritten by Project Hero. The mis-selling of sub-prime debt to 19-year-olds and its subsequent sale as derivative products to private finance is a worthy subject for a Which? investigation.

Martin McQuillan
Dean of arts and social sciences
Kingston University

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