/ Money, Parenting

Heidi Allen MP: students have a right to know what they're paying for

Book maze

Deciding to go to uni is a big financial decision, yet the information students need to make that decision often isn’t available. Here’s Heidi Allen MP on why she’d like this to change.

Our higher education institutions are regarded as among the best in the world. As the MP for South Cambridgeshire, with the University of Cambridge on my doorstep, I am especially aware of that.

But going to university is also likely to be the most significant financial decision a young person will make.

My Private Member’s Bill

Research by Which? has found that navigating this increasingly complex landscape can be unnecessarily challenging at what is already a stressful time. Why? Because unlike most large purchases, the right information to make such a decision isn’t readily available. Students aren’t able to research key aspects of potential establishments and courses, such as teaching quality or employment prospects, because the information just isn’t there.

Having had to make that choice (dare I say, more than 20 years ago?) I know that choosing the right course will always be complex and difficult.

A student will never really know whether they’ve made the right choice until they spend a week or two on campus, perhaps enter the lecture hall or even only after they’ve graduated. But with such a wide variety of places to study or courses to pick, making the right choice requires having the right information from the word ‘Go’.

That’s why last Friday I presented my Private Member’s Bill on higher education for its second reading in Parliament. The Bill aims to improve the information available to prospective students when they research and apply to universities, so that they can be confident in making a complex decision based on objective information.

Universities breaching consumer law

A recent investigation by Which? drives this home. Of the 50 university websites they scrutinised that offered psychology undergraduate courses, it discovered three quarters of them were breaching consumer law by failing to provide prospective students with vital information. Three universities were consistently adopting unlawful practices at the time of the research. How many prospective students about to make that financial decision would be shocked by that?

With UCAS applications open for 2016-17, and students having researched their courses and potential choices since the summer, it’s shocking that around two-thirds of institutions were failing to provide students with up-to-date information on course fees.

Students have a right to know exactly what they are committing to and paying for when they go to university, before they sign up to a course.

It was great to hear Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, agree:

‘A healthy market needs well-informed consumers. Applicants need to know what they can expect from a particular course, and be able to compare institutions across a wide range of criteria. Much information is already available, but the whole sector needs to go further.’

And so, as the Minister has committed to reforming the quality of information through the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework, I’m looking forward to seeing how my Bill and the research findings from Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute will help shape the new proposals.

Did you have all the info you needed when you were looking for a university? Or are you a prospective student now who’s struggling to find the information you need to make the right choice of uni and course?

This is a guest contribution by Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire. Which? called for and is backing Heidi’s Bill. All opinions are Heidi’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Adrian EAKINS says:
29 October 2015

I like the things that Heidi Allen has to say. About this and also about the fallout of government’s assault on working class people trying to do the ‘right thing’. When I discuss with young people my daughter’s age I realise that a lot of the courses being offered are:
represent poor value
lack substance and good prospects
often lack strong academic leadership as ‘top’ staff are always globe trotting.
Thank you Ms.Allen for presenting your Private Member’s Bill and spring boarding a debate.

I hope the enforcement action against those institutions that are in breach of the law by failing to provide important information is not going to have to wait until a new law is passed. Is anything being done about this? It does seem extraordinary that public sector organisations like universities cannot be relied upon to provide the appropriate information unless new legislation is introduced. I hope there is more to it than that.

It is my perception that higher education below the top levels is focussed on student numbers and that there is wasteful competition. It is essential therefore that sufficient information is made available. I should like to think that one day the quality of higher education in all our academic institutions will be so high that nobody could make a wrong choice, but that is unrealistic. Even if all courses were good enough in qualitative terms, some will be more appropriate and suitable for the student than others either academically or vocationally or both, so a lot needs to be done to inform and counsel prospective students prior to choosing their university. Perhaps universities are stuck in an age when most students were in receipt of grants and hardly had to contribute to their own education. Nowadays they are purchasers and need to be treated as such beyond the annual marketing campaigns by those institutions that need to spend money to attract a sufficient intake.

In case one wondered the Bill seems likely to fail as per this part of the debate on the 23rd October. The debate I assume resumed the day after this Conversation was posted.

Joseph Johnson: I want first to deal with the substance of the Bill, so that my hon. Friend will have the satisfaction of knowing the Government’s position.
While I support the spirit behind this well-intentioned Bill, I do not believe that it is the best way in which to achieve our objectives on behalf of students, or to provide them with the increased information on higher education that they need. We do not think it appropriate to put into legislation detailed data requirements which, by their very nature, would frequently be subject to change to reflect adaptations and improvements in the sector. We believe that our forthcoming proposals on the teaching excellence framework will address our objectives in a holistic way and tackle the range of issues that my hon. Friend has rightly raised, including the need for transparency in the sector and the rights of
23 Oct 2015 : Column 1338
students and consumers to improve their overall experience. Indeed, Universities UK has stated in its briefing note for this Bill that the teaching excellence framework will be a vehicle for introducing many of those measures.
Before I go into the detail, I shall set out the existing work we have done on student information. But first, I will happily give way to my hon. Friend.
Heidi Allen: What reassurance can the Minister give me—
2.30 pm
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 30 October.

” Seventy-six percent of UK universities have breached consumer law by failing to provide vital information to prospective students, according to Which? research.
We compared the information available to students for a 2016/17 psychology undergraduate course on 50 university websites and found that, at the time of our investigation, 38 were missing at least one piece of key information, such as the number of contact hours, expected workload and up-to-date information about fees.
Missing course information”

Yet again Which? makes startling claims which cannot surely be proven. The claim is based on a survey of 50 Psychology courses. So a claim of 76% of University psychology courses fall foul of the CMA regulations might be claimed provided it came with a rider as to the extrapolation needed to justify the claim.

We also have a the fairly obvious problem that as not all “universities” offer psychology courses the extrapolation to all “universities” is unjustifiable. There are 906 further education establishments mentioned in Ms Allen’s speech on the second reading of which only 136 offer psychology courses.

If the research had covered more subjects then the claim may seem better. As it stands the evidence to the claim is woeful.

Is researching websites the way to establish that universities are breaking the law, as if that is the only, and contractual, source of information? If something is not clear, then ask the university directly, surely.

It seems to me the student needs to spend time thinking about the career they want and researching prospective employment before they consider a course. Why rely on a third party to provide this information for you? As for quality of teaching, no doubt you can compare quality of degrees achieved if you dig around information from different establishments but, like schools or employers, you will only really find out what they are like by experiencing them first hand. I don’t see how you can guarantee a successful choice off the web. Visiting and talking to staff and other students, if that is possible, might be the best way to help in making such an important choice.

Al in all, I’m a bit grumpy about this topic. The way it is presented seems to try to relieve the student of the responsibility for doing real ground work. These are people about to move into the adult world where you have to learn to stand on your own feet.


Well reading the drasft Bill and with the legal onus on the Colleges I would not touch it with a bargepole.

What seems unaddressed is the problem of students signing up to courses and then wishing to drop out either for other courses, and other reasons , which may effectively destroy the commercial economics of the course running at all.

If we are to be legalistic in these matters perhaps it should be placed on a proper footing. Break clauses such as the right of Universities to cancel a course if insufficient numbers enroll/continue in each of the terms/years . Penalties for dropping out having deprived someone else of the opportunity of paying for an education. …. sorry of getting an education

If universities are failing to provide information that they are legally obliged to then they deserve criticism, but it is equally important to ensure that information is kept up to date and not just relevant to previous years.

Choosing a degree and where to study is more complex than buying a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner. If you have a definite career plan then it is necessary to establish how best to go about this. In another Conversation about higher education, one contributor did not realise that his biomedical science degree lacked the accreditation that was essential for the type of work he would be seeking.

As Malcolm says, it’s worth doing some homework. Open days provide an opportunity to discover information and ask questions to complement the official sources of information. Family who work in higher education or even schools can be worth speaking to. When speaking to new students and prospective students at open days, it was immediately apparent which ones had benefited from this input. My mentor was my uncle, who was principal of a local technical college and gave me, as a teenager, the confidence that doing a science degree was worthwhile and that the career opportunities were broader than working in industry.

I believe that the current government is making a mistake by encouraging more people to go into higher education, which is a far more serious issue than the subject under discussion. There are many who don’t have the motivation or abilities to benefit from their degree courses and would do far better in vocational jobs. What happens is that in order to minimise dropout rate and poor degree performance, the better students are often not stretched to make the best of their own abilities. Staff have to devote their time to those who are struggling instead of doing the best for those students who have the ability and motivation to succeed.

I would prefer if Which? addressed its concerns to the Higher Education Funding Council, which has the expertise to understand the issues. Heidi refers to ‘the staff delivering the learning’. They can facilitate learning but I don’t think they can deliver it.

Very shrewd point. They can, perhaps, deliver teaching but learning is the responsibility of the student.

I agree that you can only teach those who want to learn, although also agreed is that good teachers can inspire students to be more interested. So it is a partnership. I also feel that a university education was regarded as elitist, and getting more people to go was designed to change that. Now it is the norm, but it did not recognise that an academic education does not suit everyone. nor does it supply the labour market in a balanced way. We need lawyers, psychologists, mathematicians, economists, media studies, scientists and “thoeretical” engineers but in appropriate numbers otherwise the market is overfed to their detriment. We also need what suited many people in the technical college and poly days – people with reasonable academic ability, a practical ability but maybe for whom the education universities used to give was a level too high for them to flourish.

The government’s wish to give everyone who thinks university is the only higher education worth having has lead to a proliferation of more mediocre establishments, lower standards, at the expense of the most appropriate education for many. We need to realise and raise the status of vocational and practical education for those who would best benefit.

I agree with your comment about vocational education. Many simply can’t cope with the demands of an academic course.

Having attended Cambridge and also having been a lifelong educator, I am amused by the prospect of changing the word “University” or “course” in this article to something like “mate” or “spouse”. Throughout life, and particularly while young, we are all too often asked to make choices with less-than-optimal data. The Physics student lured by the prospect of working with the Large Hadron Collider or massive radio telescopes is on par with the would-be tennis player watching Roger Federer. That being said, well done to Allen’s efforts for improving those things that should be transparent, even though transparency is often the last thing under the microscope of student dreams.

You’re right about elitism, Malcolm, but that remains a potent factor even now, with the difference that it’s more to do with which University. But the increase in places wasn’t designed to combat that: it was because, back in the ’60s, the Civil Service commissioned a study which seemed to suggest that almost everyone would need a degree of some description by the year 2000, simply for the UK to be able to compete in a world marketplace.

Interestingly, they might have got it partially right, albeit they were about 20 or so years premature. As an example, the deceptively simple job of Plumber now requires multiple certifications for the holder to be able to work on different installations, while the sheer number of regulations of which the Electrician needs to be aware is quite daunting. But these are, and will remain, vocations and a different type of qualification and training is necessary for those who choose those careers.

Ian, I am sure you are right about the thought that a degree was “an essential”. For certain types career a degree is necessary, partly for the academic grounding it gives, but also for developing the ability and capacity to learn and assimilate information, to think creatively and to become open minded. The flaw. to my mind, is you do this by lowering standards so that everyone has the correct “label” even though they do not all have the appropriate aptitude.

I think we have seen the parallel in earlier qualifications. When I took O and A levels they seemed more difficult than today’s equivalents, which again seem devalued. So whilst we might encourage children by giving more of them qualifications, they are of little real use unless they represent appropriately high standards.

I agree with you, Malcolm. I have copies of “o” level Mathematics and English Language papers going back to the 1950s, and what strikes me about them is the difficult way the questions were phrased. The actual problems are not that hard in many cases, but some of the phrasing is more appropriate for first year university students, not fifth-year school children. Even the paper rubric seems deliberately obscure, and I do wonder if the examiners on those days took a sadistic delight in phrasing things in as complicated a way as possible. I also wonder if a high proportion of people now lack basic literacy skills.

The major change which took place in education saw the merging of the GCE and the CSE in 1988, but prior to that movement towards an integrated examination model had been taking place. What the change witnessed, however, was interesting, because the former CSE examiners and teachers outnumbered the GCE staff by a ratio of 4:1, so it was the CSE ‘mode’ of question setting which became the norm, as everything was decided in committees. This led to questions which were easier to understand for the students (and also – incidentally – to media condemnation on the part of some tabloids) but it did produce an examination which was easier to complete, but not – I believe – any easier to gain a very high score in.

When Universities’ funding was tied to intake, a similar thing happened in many Universities. A group of about 15 Universities, representing some of the finest (but not necessarily oldest) remained above it all, but once all teaching colleges and Poly techs were re-branded as Universities, a battle commenced to attract students. The better ones offered high-quality courses which were valued in the world of work, but some had to create degree courses that didn’t have immediately obvious applications.

I think it is probably a daft idea to think that prospective students will ever be able to make the best (and most informed) choices about universities and courses solely from the information published by the various university websites.

Getting good careers advice can certainly help, and so can visiting (or talking to) candidate universities and the staff that run their courses.

One of the best ways is to talk to existing students. They’re usually a reliable source of information on a particular course.

The whole concept of getting advice is fraught with the real world problems.

A particular tutor, rather like a restaurant’s chef, can be the difference between a great course and a so-so course. The views of a single 3rd year student are they more applicable than those of a second or first year?

Are the views of a studious Indian or Chinese student applicable to the desires and maturation of an A level student . And vice versa.

Lets get a basic foundation here that until their twenties teenagers brains are still forming and the most important part of risk assessment and planning forward is the last to develop. SO us providing ALL the rational help you care for may be reduced to its’ got a really good club scene , or my friends going there .

So I am not going to get very excited about this. Which? have very cleverly aggregated much of the existing information for their site and linked with the NUS. The Government are going to institute changes .