HE market place may turn students into “consumers and punters”

Proposals in a Higher Education White Paper could lead to the creation of a higher education market place, which the government says will ensure students get the full value of their higher fees.

Published by the government on Tuesday 28th June, the paper stated its aim to create a “more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive”.

Universities will have to publish data on areas such as teaching hours, quality of lectures and accommodation costs. They will be also be “encouraged” to publish information about the qualifications of teaching staff.

The government will also request information about employment rates and projected earnings of individual courses. In an effort to tackle possible losses from students who cannot repay their loans, pressure will be put on underperforming courses to be reformed or scrapped completely.

Universities will also be required to publish and justify how they spend tuition fee income. Currently, two-thirds of universities will seek to charge the maximum £9,000 fee despite differences in student experience, teaching and employability.

While universities will still be allocated total student quotas, in an effort to encourage institutions to compete for students, from 2012 universities will be allowed to give unlimited offers to students achieving AAB or higher at A-level.  There will also be 20,000 places allocated to institutions charging less than £7,500, as Willets outlined his aim “to extend the system so more places are contestable.”

In a round of interviews given prior to the publication of the paper, David Willets argued “all that information should be out there, and we are insisting for the first time that it should be available for prospective students.”

But Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill, attacked the reforms during a University ceremony awarding honorary degrees. Focusing on Willett’s aim to turn students into “consumers and punters”, Hill said: “If even one University comes to consider their students as consumers and punters…the future of education in this country is bleak”.

OUSU President David Barclay condemned the government policy, which he described as “in total freefall”. Barclay commented on Hill’s speech: “Like Professor Hill I find it extremely offensive to suggest that students are consumers. We are members of our University community and our rights and power come from that status, not from the size of our wallets and the level of our debts.”

NUS President Aaron Porter said separately: “To use proposals for more information as a justification for lifting the cap on fees to £9,000 is outrageous and will not fool students and their families. It’s the price, rather than educational standards, that will have tripled.”