Getting bang for students’ buck

Liam Burns, re-elected the President of the NUS last week, wants to shift his organisation’s focus away from tuition fees to the quality of teaching students receive. Good. With most institutions tripling their fees, it’s time to make sure students get value for money.

Whilst NUS have been busy directing their anger towards government, they have missed the real problem that needs addressing. It’s not that the new fee arrangements are putting off students from poor backgrounds. Rather, it’s that despite fees unlocking greater revenue for universities over the past decade, the average level of student satisfaction – as measured by the National Student Survey – has flatlined.

Government is hoping that students will become more discerning customers, shunning poor-performing institutions, to incentivise universities to offer a better quality experience. But students need to be able to make informed choices.

Sadly, there is currently a lack of good, reliable data. Employment outcomes are not good enough on their own. Impressive graduate salaries may be the result of the type of students the university is able to attract, or their decades-old reputation among employers, rather than any reflection of their contribution to the human capital of their students. League tables use a range of indicators – such as spend per pupil and entry requirements – but, again, many of these may not be a measure of what the university adds, but a simple reflection of their status.

Fortunately, research by Graham Gibbs has found there are good proxy measures of how universities are performing, such as class sizes, teaching standards, and the quality and quantity of feedback. Students need to be directed to this information. And QAA, the regulator of teaching in the sector, need to prioritise these indicators in their assessments of institutions.

But giving applicants the tools to choose wisely is not enough. This is because there is still a cap on university places. Since demand for HE places forever exceeds supply, poor-quality universities are in effect guaranteed customers. So there is little incentive for universities to improve their service.

The priority must be to finance the abolition of the cap to ensure universities are required to respond to the needs of their students. In the absence of complete liberalisation, an alternative would be to make university funding for undergraduate tuition dependent on revenue from subsequent graduate earnings. The SMF advocated this approach in Funding Undergraduates: with universities taking out loans, rather than students, the amount they borrowed would be entirely dependent on how each cohort of their graduates performs in the labour market. Such a payment by results model, with high-performing universities able to borrow more, would encourage institutions to invest much more in the quality of provision, regardless of any cap on student numbers.

And competitive pressures need not apply only at the point of admission. If external degrees were much more widespread and normalised, as the Universities Minister wishes, it could mean that students are much more able to pick and choose modules and courses at different institutions.

Even though fees have increased, there is no guarantee that students will have an enhanced experience. If a liberalised HE market is some way off, there are other ways to strengthen competition if we wish to drive up the quality of HE for students.


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