Consumer Rights and the University Classroom: ‘A Degree of Value’

The recent report by Which?, A Degree of Value: Value for Money from the Student Perspective, attracted some familiar headlines. Newspapers like evidence that students aren’t working as hard as we say they are: the angle taken by The Independent and The Telegraph. Never mind that we’ve had that statistic before; never mind that students’ perceptions of workload can vary enormously, nor that problems with stress are possibly as high as they’ve ever been. Never mind, for that matter, that the evidence base looks a bit shaky. I mean, just 25 students were consulted from my own university, and 709 students nationally. I’ve seen more convincing data.

But there’s more to the report than these figures. What seems interesting to me is the way this consumer group, after entering the world of higher education by launching ‘Which? University’, is working now to make sense of the HE market through the perspective of consumer rights. I found myself underlining headings as much as findings (‘consumer protection’ is not one I’ve seen in many reports on HE) and noticing throughout a challenging attitude and discourse. It’s not hostile; it’s just thinking about the student as consumer, with a rigour that marks a step forward even from the likes of the Browne Review and subsequent White Paper. I’m interested here in where that gets them.

The first place is one very topical question: the regulation of higher education. For those with stronger ties than me to the QAA, there is much here to jangle the nerves, not least the assertion that ‘The regulatory system, which was designed for a more homogenous sector, is no longer fit for purpose’. Any regulator, it argues, should be more directly accountable to students, and ‘should more actively assess actual standards as part of their inspection’. That plays nicely into the hands of some of the QAA’s critics, who might like a body a bit more like Ofsted regulating HE. But it might be just a little utopian – or dystopian, depending upon one’s perspective – to think that this can be achieved on the sort of budget that HEFCE has in hand. Indeed the report demonstrates ignorance of the history of QAA inspections, and for that matter of their present reality. The QAA may prove easier to kick than to replace.

These arguments aside, A Degree of Value is at its most interesting when tackling the question of information that might help university applicants. It looks critically at the key information sets, 2-3 years on from their introduction. Among the current measures that it criticizes, the most interesting is the percentage of degrees awarded at 2.1 or above. This is not a useful measure, it argues, because standards are not sufficiently comparable across the sector (indeed – news to me – the QAA said precisely this in 2006), and because it is having an inflationary effect on grading. Absolutely right: one mind-altering fact I learned this year is that an average of 58 now gets a student a 2.1 at many universities, precisely to ensure better data on this metric. 58, in other words, is the new 60. But what makes things more interesting is that the metric also feeds into league tables. So it will be a tough one to shift, although I admire the effort.

The report, meanwhile, suggests adding more than it would delete. It takes guidance from the admirable Graham Gibbs, who famously outlines a list of quality indicators that is much more substantial than those that now comprise the KIS. So A Degree of Value suggests the following,

  • Hours of small-, medium- and large-group teaching. ‘Small group’ is defined as groups of less than sixteen – which is convenient for my department, since that’s how we define it.
  • Proportion of teaching staff with a teaching qualification and proportion of teaching by academic members of staff. But the line here is interestingly nuanced, since the report acknowledges (perhaps a little grudgingly) that many students actually like being taught by graduate teaching assistants. The key point, it concludes, is one of adequate training: a cue, if ever there was one, to plug my department’s training programme, that involves a semester of shadowing an experienced teacher before a GTA is considered for teaching duties him/herself.
  • Spend per pupil on academic services. Fair enough.
  • Longer-term earnings data, for example at 6 months, 3.5 years and 7 years post-graduation. Again, fair enough, though it would play right into the hands of universities like my own.
  • Proportion of students who attend a work placement.
  • Retention rates.
  • Numbers of complaints.

But ‘A Degree of Value’ is perhaps most intriguing when it recognizes that the market for HE is far from typical. How about this?

Six in 10 (57%) prospective students researched the academic reputation of the university at the time of making their choice, but less than one-third of prospective students considered aspects that are recognised as being proxies for quality such as the staff at the university (29%) and amount of small-group teaching (19%). And yet a quarter of graduates (24%) and undergraduates (25%) would have researched teaching quality in hindsight.

As I read these figures, they say that the single most important factor in applicant choice is brand. And therefore (though this is me, not the report), since the single biggest determinant of brand is strength in research, the attitudes of applicants work against their interests as students to the extent that they justify the drift of resources (aka their fees) away from education. That’s the peculiar logic of this market.

One final statistic gives this report a topical edge, as the government prepares a proposal for the funding of postgraduate degrees: ‘53% say that an undergraduate degree is no longer enough, a post-graduate qualification is necessary’. What that might tell us about different kinds of postgraduate degrees, though, is another matter. The national drift away from non-vocational programmes in the humanities – and the associated scramble to identify vocational alternatives – is perhaps a subject for a future blog.

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