State your demands, Government and Tories tell students

Universities warned to be more responsive or face the consequences. Hannah Fearn reports

October 29, 2009

Politicians from both main parties have warned universities that they must do more to meet students' needs, with the Government also urging students to be more demanding.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are proposing measures to ensure that students have more information about the returns they can expect on their investment in higher education.

Speaking at a higher education summit held by the Confederation of British Industry in London last week, Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, said: "Students who go into higher education pay more, expect more and are entitled to receive more."

He added that universities should be closely scrutinised to ensure that they do not fail their students.

"We are going to have to be more demanding and monitor more on behalf of students. If there are people, systems or approaches that are failing students ... we have to be prepared to call time on those people, systems and approaches," he said.

"That is not painless. It is not meant to be. It will bring about the sort of changes that people are rightly going to demand because they continue to pay for their own part."

Lord Mandelson stopped short of calling for an "Ofsted for universities" analogous to the schools inspectorate, but said that the sector was moving towards a future where institutions would face more demands for information, which in turn would drive up quality.

"The common drivers of change should be students and student expectations," he said. "The more information that students have on courses and their outcomes, the more they will drive universities to improve."

At the same conference, David Willetts, the Conservative Party's Shadow Universities Secretary, said that the Tories proposed to create a website that would inform students about the "returns" they should expect from particular courses.

He said: "We need much better information for prospective students. We need information that's granular and real. We're expecting them to make important choices about courses and institutions without enabling them to be as informed as they could be. This has to change."

Mr Willetts also called for positive alternatives to universities, such as residential apprenticeships.

Lord Mandelson said that Labour would do more to bring higher education and further education closer together, and make passage between the two systems easier for students.

He also pledged that widening participation "will remain the leitmotiv of UK higher education policy".

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told the summit that the sector would continue to argue for more money in the economic downturn.

"Yes, there's going to be a reduction in public funding, but I'm not ready to roll over and say that that's going to come from higher education," he said.

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