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Higher education market not working in interests of students or taxpayers

18 June 2018

The Public Accounts Committee report finds no evidence greater competition between providers will improve quality of education they provide.

Planned-for competition did not emerge

The Government has recently introduced changes to the regulation of higher education to address concerns that students were not always getting a good service.

The original aim of introducing a market into higher education was that student choice and competition between providers would improve quality and value for money. In reality the planned-for competition did not emerge.

Most students are teenagers when they apply and are too often not getting the right advice and support they need. Decisions made in year 9 can have a serious impact on the choices young people are able to make when applying to universities and yet we were not convinced that the myriad of careers initiatives generated by Government are leading to demonstrably better advice for individual pupils.

Shorter degree courses and part-time courses have not emerged

Shorter degree courses and part-time courses have also not emerged. A number of Government policies are aimed at widening participation in higher education and this has to be a focus if the Government is serious about delivering its social mobility agenda. Experience shows that it cannot rely on the sector alone to deliver.

We spoke to the Office for Students at its inception and hope that it will set a clear marker that it really is acting in the interests of students from day one. It is still unclear how it will gauge the real concerns of students and ensure that institutions are delivering and sanctioned when they let students down.

It will be important to get right the change in the ease with which students are able to transfer institutions. This will not only be critical to the life chances of tens of thousands of young people but also to creating the foundations for the UK to face the many challenges ahead.

Chair's comments

Comment from Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP:

"The choices prospective students make about higher education can be the most critical they have ever faced.

Their decisions can have a transformative impact on their life prospects and, in turn, lay the foundations for significant benefits to the wider economy.

It is therefore deeply concerning that the evidence indicates Government's approach to the higher education sector is letting those same students down.

The advice available to help students, in the overwhelming majority of cases teenagers, make informed choices is inadequate.

Should students then be unhappy with the course they choose, they are not sufficiently empowered to switch providers or get their money back.

At the same time, Government can provide no evidence that competition between institutions will drive up the quality of education they provide.

These are not indicators of a market working in students' best interests. Rather, they are the symptoms of failure.

If Government is to deliver the promised benefits of its reforms then it must be far more rigorous in measuring progress against its objectives and where necessary move swiftly to take remedial action.

Much rides on the ability of the new Office for Students to function as an effective regulator and as a priority we expect it to set out in detail exactly how it will approach the task of safeguarding students' interests."

Further information

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