Cool it, Which? A degree is not a fridge

The concept of a student market - and so the involvement of the Consumers’ Association - is flawed, argues Martin McQuillan

February 13, 2014

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

Which? is synonymous with reviews of appliances, stereos and cars. But it has taken an interest in higher education since the 2010 reforms

Markets function well when there are sufficient options creating sufficient competition on price for well-informed consumers: car insurance, our daily cappuccino and package holidays all work in this way.

The higher education sector fulfils only one of these criteria: with 287 institutions now offering degree qualifications in the UK there is no shortage of options for undergraduates. But there is little competition on price, with university fees of £9,000 the norm rather than the exception.

Some view school-leavers as canny consumers who bring the same elan they demonstrate in their choice of mobile phones to their selection of degree course; others see them as teenagers who are most influenced by teachers, parents and family friends. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. (Mature and part-time students tend to have less choice in the institution they attend.)

The Labour Party has recently gained traction in the opinion polls with the theme of “broken markets”, with Ed Miliband’s team drawing comparisons between their leader and Theodore Roosevelt’s assault on vested interests. It is in this context that the soon-to-be-defunct Office of Fair Trading has taken an interest in a possible higher education cartel. Universities UK and others have made submissions to the OFT in advance of its replacement by the new Competition and Markets Authority on 1 April (no irony intended, apparently). One possible outcome of the OFT’s initial call for evidence is a year-long market review of higher education conducted by the body that succeeds it. The OFT is being encouraged to do so by the consumer campaigning charity and magazine Which?.

Which? is synonymous with reviews of kitchen appliances, stereo systems and cars. It has, however, taken an interest in higher education since the 2010 reforms. Last year, it produced a Student Academic Experience Survey of 26,000 undergraduates with the Higher Education Policy Institute. In 2012, it launched the website, Which University?, backed by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, and the National Union of Students. The site allows comparison of degree courses and institutions by criteria such as entry tariff, percentage of applicants receiving offers and average graduate salary, as well as most diverse nightlife and the richness of the political scene, but it refrains from offering “best buy” recommendations.

Which? may be the go-to place for advice on camcorders and energy bills, but it also has a longer and more noble history. The magazine and website are publications of the Consumers’ Association, a charity dedicated to consumer advocacy so that individuals might be as empowered as the institutions that frame their lives. It does not accept advertising or freebies and receives no government funding. Its founder, Michael Young, was Harold Wilson’s director of research, and Young first tried to have the Consumers’ Association considered as a Labour manifesto pledge in 1950. Its aim was to combat sharp trading practices in the post-war consumer boom. Later established in 1957, the Consumers’ Association grew in scope and reputation and in the Enterprise Act 2002 was afforded the right to issue a “super-complaint” to the OFT, obliging the government to decide whether or not to act on the complaint. There is no suggestion at present that Which? will make such a complaint against universities.

The Which? data on universities is fascinating. For example, the survey with Hepi reveals that although the Quality Assurance Agency guidelines suggest that a full-time degree student should study for a total of 1,200 hours a year (combining contact and private study), on average students in England study for only 900 hours – paying £10 an hour for the privilege if you do the arithmetic. The website is equally revealing. It suggests that at more than 80 per cent of institutions, their graduates’ average salary six months after leaving university would be insufficient to trigger the £21,000 repayment threshold for student loans.

The question of the Consumers’ Association’s involvement in university education is a vexed one. If higher education in England is supposed to be a market, then it is certainly a broken one. Since 2010, we have had fixed price and fixed supply. The removal of the cap on student numbers may create increased competition within parts of the sector but the demographic decline of school-leavers will ultimately limit demand. Competition will be at best limited.

But more fundamentally, the whole concept of the student market in higher education – and so the involvement of the Consumers’ Association – is flawed. A university degree is not a commodity. It cannot be bought and resold on eBay. A degree is a positional good; its value is a function of the ranking of its desirability by others in comparison with alternatives. A degree is also far more than this and it is not reducible to vocational training towards a handsome pay cheque. It is the key to unlocking human potential, to securing a more just society, to enabling educated citizens to escape the destiny of an off-the-peg life. It also contributes to economic growth and cultural advancement.

Markets, meanwhile, are driven by profit. The only consideration for a university and its students should be the quality of the education on offer.

It is not possible to force a market where one does not and should not exist. There should no more be a market in higher education than there should be pubs at motorway service stations. Both are a consequence of profit-driven lobbying preying on the ideological zeal of politicians. The Consumers’ Association should think twice before involving itself further and so lending credibility to this epochal error in higher education.

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