Tough new consumer protection measures could soon be introduced to make it easier for students to sue universities in England that do not deliver promised levels of teaching.
Under proposals announced by universities and science minister Jo Johnson on 20 July, the country’s new regulator, the Office for Students, is to consult on the idea of a student contract with universities, in which institutions would detail teaching levels that undergraduates could expect.
The contracts could potentially include promises on how many tutorials, lectures and overall contact hours will be offered to students, as well as how quickly feedback on assessment will be returned, Mr Johnson said.
Universities would be required to offer the contracts, which would follow a standardised format across the entire sector, as a condition of joining the OfS’ register of institutions, Mr Johnson said.
The contracts would replace the “student charters” drawn up by many universities. These offered only “loose” promises around teaching, said Mr Johnson, who added that the new contracts might cover “legal remedies” for students dissatisfied with the course.
In a wide-ranging speech at the Reform thinktank in central London, Mr Johnson also stepped up his criticisms of the high pay of university vice-chancellors, announcing several new measures aimed at curbing salary inflation.
Mr Johnson said that he will ask the OfS – to be legally established in January, three months ahead of the full launch of the organisation – to address the issue of “spiralling vice-chancellors’ pay”.
Remuneration committees will be asked to “publicly justify” any award greater than the prime minister’s salary, which is about £150,000, to ensure that salary uplifts are awarded only for “exceptional performance", he added.
“Performance against benchmarks in the teaching excellence framework is a potential indicator that remuneration committees could consider,” said Mr Johnson.
Speaking to journalists about the potential impact of such guidance, Mr Johnson later said that he would be “astonished if it did not cause [remuneration committees] to pause” when considering substantial pay rises.
Gordon Marsden, shadow higher education minister, branded the proposals “completely toothless”, adding that Mr Johnson had “shown his contempt for Parliament [by] delivering major higher education developments to a right-wing thinktank rather than coming to the House”.
Other plans announced by Mr Johnson to proceed with a subject-level TEF pilot in the autumn “could be extremely costly and time-consuming”, Mr Marsden added.
Mr Johnson also attacked the Labour Party’s manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees, as well as comments by its leader Jeremy Corbyn that he was keen to “deal with” graduate debts incurred under the £9,000 tuition fees regime.
Describing Mr Corbyn’s comments as “political deception of the highest order”, Mr Johnson said that the subsequent decision to make debt write-off an “ambition” was a case of “saying one thing before the election and another thing after the election”.
Claims by Mr Corbyn that current tuition fees were deterring poorer students from going to university were “simple nonsense” that the Labour leader had “outrageously not corrected”, said Mr Johnson.
Any abolition of fees would almost certainly lead to a fall in income for universities, causing the closure of departments and potentially entire universities, the minister said. The unit of resource per student would also be squeezed, causing the UK’s world-leading sector to slide into “mediocrity”, he added.
“We have all seen this movie before, and it has a Reservoir Dogs ending for universities,” he said of the circular shoot-out that ends the 1992 Quentin Tarantino film.
Labour’s plans for student funding would “lead to a humbling of world-class universities, widespread closure of departments and even whole universities”, he said, adding that this “grim” scenario would be a “disaster” for students, institutions and taxpayers.