Martin McQuillan argues that the market for undergraduate higher education is broken and that Which? should step away from the role we have played as an information provider and advocate for students in terms of what they get for their tuition fees (“Higher education is not a fridge. Which? ‘Best Buy’ does not apply”, Opinion, 13 February). We share his view that there are significant issues in the market, but far from these being a reason for us to exit higher education, we believe they underline the importance of a strong consumer voice representing the student interest.
Students now pay fees of £8,500 a year on average. Yet there are few protections for them when it comes to what they get for their fees in terms of the quality of their academic experience. There is an assumption that quality will be maintained through competition – that an army of savvy prospective students won’t bother applying for degrees not worth the fees.
When the government introduced the £9,000 fee cap, it thought that fees at this level would be the exception, not the norm. But competition has failed to materialise. This was predictable. A degree is not a simple commodity: people go to university for all sorts of reasons, including to improve their career prospects. Students and employers rely heavily on institutional reputation – determined primarily by rankings based on research, not teaching – to make decisions. Thus universities have little incentive to compete on the quality of teaching. Once students have started a course, it is extremely difficult to switch institutions. And the lifting of the cap on student numbers risks exacerbating problems in the market.
There are important steps that the government and the sector can take. First, prospective students need better information about courses and institutions. There remain gaps in the data that universities are obliged to report. These should include factors such as total teaching time and size of teaching groups. We also want the government to provide long-term information on graduate salaries.
Second, there must be better consumer protections. That’s why Which? has called for the new Competition and Markets Authority to undertake a market study to look at this issue.
Going to university is the most significant financial decision most young people will make until their early thirties. That’s why Which? will continue to advocate for greater protection for them from a poor university experience.
Head of public services policy, Which?