/ Parenting

Students need a tough consumer advocate

Students in a purse

Martin McQuillan of Kingston Uni has argued Which? should stop acting as an advocate for students in terms of what they get for their tuition fees because the market is broken. We explain why we think he’s wrong…

We share Martin’s view that there are significant issues in the market, but far from these being a reason for us to exit higher education, we believe they underline the importance of a strong consumer voice representing the student interest.

Students now pay fees of £8,500 a year on average. Yet there are few protections for them when it comes to what they get for their fees in terms of the quality of their academic experience. There is an assumption that quality will be maintained through competition – that an army of savvy prospective students won’t bother applying for degrees not worth the fees.

Where’s the competition?

When the government introduced the £9,000 fee cap, it thought that fees at this level would be the exception, not the norm. But competition has failed to materialise. This was predictable. A degree is not a simple commodity: people go to university for all sorts of reasons, including to improve their career prospects.

Students and employers rely heavily on institutional reputation – determined primarily by rankings based on research, not teaching – to make decisions. Thus universities have little incentive to compete on the quality of teaching. Once students have started a course, it is extremely difficult to switch institutions. And the lifting of the cap on student numbers risks exacerbating problems in the market.

Changes needed to higher education

There are important steps that the government and the sector can take. First, prospective students need better information about courses and institutions. There remain gaps in the data that universities are obliged to report. These should include factors such as total teaching time and size of teaching groups. We also want the government to provide long-term information on graduate salaries.

Second, there must be better consumer protections. That’s why Which? has called for the new Competition and Markets Authority to undertake a market study to look at this issue.

Going to university is the most significant financial decision most young people will make until their early thirties. That’s why Which? will continue to advocate for greater protection for them from a poor university experience.

This piece was originally published on The Times Higher Education, in response to Martin McQuillan’s (dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University) article ‘Higher education is not a fridge. Which? “Best Buy” does not apply


With the greatest respect, Martin McQuillan should have done his homework and discovered the wide range of issues that Which? is involved in these days. I don’t think Which? deserved this criticism.

Having worked in higher education until a couple of years ago, I agree with Martin about the problem that in many institutions the contact hours and study time are woefully short of the QAA guidelines. As a result of ‘efficiencies’ class sizes can be huge and support limited, although expecting students to support each other is an important part of higher education. Not everyone can cope with this change from being nannied at school and college, and many universities have an embarrassing drop-out rate in the first year.

Sometimes I would prefer if Which? would devote more of its resources to fewer issues in order to win more battles, but I would be happier if Which? discontinued reviews of luxury cars rather than ignoring what is happening in our universities.

Quality of teaching would surely be the main criterion in choosing a university. It is not like school class size is important in helping along the less able; by the time you have got to university you should have developed an aptitude for learning, including study work in your own time. The problem is we have too many universities that inevitably has diluted the quality, overstretched available staff resources, and introduced too many peculiar course. Have a thought for those who prefer to go to the old-fashioned technical colleges, or take vocational courses. Just as important to the economy as Universities.

Malcolm – Some students do struggle to start with, particularly in large first year classes. It is not always the less able, and the reasons may not be academic. At the university I worked at we had some excellent student support services, something that was non-existent when I was a student in the early 70s. A lot of this could have been avoided by having smaller classes and better local departmental support. Like some of my colleagues I regularly looked for students that might be having problems with our impersonal regime, since that improved the chances of student retention. New students’ interpersonal skills have improved greatly in the past two or three decades, but aptitude for learning still needs to be developed in many cases.

I very much agree about the value of technical colleges, and feel the same about polytechnics. What we ended up with was a lot of second rate universities without a research track record. Like many, I believe that good research is an important driver of good teaching. Fortunately, some of the newer universities are now doing well. I wonder when this country will appreciate the importance of top quality vocational training.

While I have some sympathy with Martin’s view (and am firmly against marketisation in education), that market is now there. Like it or loathe it, University management has fallen in line with corporate management style and there is an open transfer window between the two.

To ignore that and to insist that students’ only option is to militate is effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While I would agree with Martin’s call to action and oppose the blurring between academic and corporate hierarchies, many students don’t or aren’t privileged enough to have a large base of support that will effectively fight that corner for them.

That being the case, I think Which? has a valuable role to play in informing and advocating for students within the market without weakening the case for an alternative.

It is with trepidation that I tread with leaden feet among the cowpats in the groves of academe, for I have been neither a receptacle nor a dispenser of higher education. I am, however, a taxpayer and I think it’s about time there was a serious discussion about the purposes, quality and outcomes of university degree courses having regard to the national interest for once [as well as to protect and inform those whose enrolment secures the cash].

Until I read Martin McQuillan’s article I had not realised that there were now as many as 287 degree-awarding institutions in the UK.This handsome number does not ensure, however, that there is a competitive situation that works to the advantage of young people’s education and development. The money level of tuition fees is not really the issue because it has become virtually standardised; over the duration of a university education, and having regard to all the other unavoidable extra costs, the difference between the highest and lowest fees are not significant enough to affect choices [except possibly in a handful of cases]. Distance and whether or not to stay at home or go away probably have a disproportionate influence on choice because they are critical to a student’s budget; this is regrettable because, where such factors predominate, the eventual decision could be detrimental to the student’s education. The selection of a course is fraught with uncertainties: the unpredictability [for many] of A-level grades, the bewildering choice of courses available, a UCAS system that doesn’t always fulfill expectations, the establishments themselves using all the marketing tools under the sun to entice each new intake, and reams of utter drivel filling the pages of the newspaper student-clearing supplements each Summer. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, there is a lack of useful information on the quality of the education, the academic records of the tutors, the drop-out rates, and the achievements and destinations of graduates, It would be amazing if more than half our students – at best – acquired the most suitable access to learning. I therefore reckon there is a very costly deficiency in effectiveness that deserves a more methodological examination which is the hallmark of the Which? approach. A comprehensive and authoritative evaluation of degree courses would empower applicants, and guide those who mentor them, on the subject they choose and the best place to read it. Dean McQuillan says that because there are no economic factors to analyse there is no place for Which?, and that Which?’s very intervention forces a market into existence. He sets out the purposes of a university degree – ” . . . 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. . . .”. There has to be a way of assessing whether the inputs to higher education are conducive to these outputs and I think Which? on behalf of taxpayers, as well as the cohorts of students and their hard-pressed and largely unknowing parents, has a perfect right to do it. Perhaps the deans and dons don’t want the piercing LED’s of the consumers’ flashlight to penetrate their shady enclaves and thus reveal The Truth.

hushyour mouthkid itsbadfor business says:
27 February 2014

No doubt ‘which?’ is again doing many of us a favour.

Britain used to have the best education system in the world, and the best parts of it are still world class. However, the science of population curves is proven – ie. the top 2% is top because it is only 2% of the total. Degree level education used to be the province of a minority (contentious topic I know) and this was an important contributory factor for the high quality of the UK graduate. Now we process as many as possible and are (alas) supprised when standards of provision drop in different ways. However the ‘quality’ of the product offered to students should be equally high, regardless of the average academic level of the consumer.

Mike Penny says:
6 June 2014

I don’t feel particularly strongly one way or another about whether Which has a role in evaluating Universities and their courses. However I do worry about some of the criteria Sonia thinks might be used in the process of evaluation. During most of a working lifetime in HE I saw a good deal of inspection by quality assurance bodies and it was obvious to them [and me] that narrow performance indicators are of limited value. You need in addition more comprehensive qualitative measures and judgements. So when Sonia talks about teaching contact hours and class sizes I start to get anxious. What evidence is there that more contact means a better education? Average class sizes may conceal all kinds of teaching situations and small doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good’ or big ‘bad’. Indeed how do you decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
I would also point out that if my own high status undergraduate institution in the 1960s had been judged by its student contact, occasional very large teaching situations and [from memory] the quality of tutors in teaching, then it would have scored very badly on the criteria being discussed. And I might add this is the kind of institution many of your correspondents look back fondly on as ‘proper’ universities. The fact is the world has changed in terms of work, social structures, student capabilities and aspirations and the overall national wealth. It is no longer possible to have a Higher Education system which caters for a tiny proportion of the age cohort; students and their families wouldn’t wear it and neither would employers. The fact that some polytechnics became universities didn’t mean that the range of courses changed. The thinking behind it was more about parity of esteem than a different curriculum. If the HE curriculum has changed it’s more about a response to stakeholders and although the outcome might not be perfect at least it reflects change and the modern world.