University regulation ‘not fit for purpose’, says Which?

English higher education regulation is “no longer fit for purpose” and there needs to be “a strong regulator to protect students” paying higher fees.

November 23, 2014

That is the argument of consumer group Which? in a new report, based on a survey of students that found “worsening perceptions of value for money”.

Which? calls for new legislation on the sector’s regulation and says the Quality Assurance Agency should be given powers to recommend that degree-awarding powers are removed from poorly-performing institutions.

Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said: “We want to see better information for prospective students, improved complaints processes and a strong regulator that enforces high standards across the sector.” 

Which? conducted four surveys of prospective students, undergraduates and graduates, in groups ranging from around 1,000 to around 4,500, for the report, titled ‘A degree of value: value for money from the student perspective’.

The report does say that the survey found 68 per cent of undergraduates paying higher fees and 81 per cent of graduates who paid lower fees under the previous system “thought that their university experience was good value for money”.

But Which? says that “a significant number reported views we think are concerning”, including three in ten undergraduates saying “that their experience was poor value” and 35 per cent of graduates saying “that they are unlikely to have attended university faced with higher fees”.

And only 49 per cent of students say the amount of work they were given was demanding, Which? finds, with only 45 per cent saying lectures are generally worth attending.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has taken under the role of chief regulator and student champion under the new system, but Which? appears to suggest that role is not strong enough.

The report says: “The regulatory system, which was designed for a more homogenous sector, is no longer fit for purpose. With students now taking on tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to complete their studies, there needs to be a strong regulator to protect students.”

The report’s recommendations include that “the government should release better comparable information on the academic offer, costs and financial support, support to enter employment and longer term employment outcomes, and complaints”.

It also says that “new legislation should be brought forward to enable the linking of HMRC with Student Loans Company data to provide anonymised information on longer-term employment outcomes to support student choice”.

Megan Dunn, National Union of Students vice-president (higher education), said: “This report highlights the damaging effects of the market principles that have been imposed on the higher education sector by politicians and the complacency of the university vice chancellors who cheered them on from the side lines.

“What the market champions failed to realise was that students, increasingly treated like supermarket customers, would look to exercise their consumer rights. This new report shows that universities are woefully ill-prepared for the reaction by those they have let down.”

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Reader's comments (1)

As much as HE leaders will acknowledge the wider industry challenges, a more pressing concern will be the Which? finding of a sharp decline in the perceived value of degree courses by 18 year olds. The suggested interventions can all play a role but more targeted action is probably required. Hence a suggestion for remedies is that there is at least as much in the strategic marketer’s tool-kit as there is in that of the economic regulator. For example: - Institutions could consider a broader range of options other than three year residential courses at around £9k - They can tailor offers to a more diverse range of consumer scenarios, not all undergraduates are 18 years old and not all 18 year olds are the same - They could give a higher priority to demand generation for graduates and entrepreneurial opportunities locally and in their specialisms. These approaches and a whole lot more are well practised in other industry sectors and none should be beyond the scope and capabilities of those in HE. What the sector would benefit from however is a thoughtful approach to regulation that takes account of the steep learning curve being imposed on those in HE and their requirement for the time and space to adjust to the new scenario. Which? contributions are extremely valuable but can be less helpful in this respect when attempting to synthesise a complex scenario to just a few recommendations. For example there is currently a constrained perspective on what value really means with heavy emphasis on students experience’s during their time at University. Shouldn’t we also be considering the notion of value over the lifetime of the student - which would include the value of identifying, selecting and nurturing them prior to University, developing that talent whilst at University and then adding further value in their life beyond?

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