If you’re a student and one of the old guard who pays the £3,300 a year tuition fee, I guess it doesn’t seem too bad on the face of it.

OK, so you’re still technically a consumer, but it could always be £9,000 a year you’re paying, couldn’t it?  Still, at long as you’re getting what you’re paying for, then it’s all OK.

Erm, there’s an assumption there – one that could possibly fall flat on its face, thanks to a new report by the Which? consumer group.  In the latest set of bad news for the under-performing out there, a survey of over 100 undergraduates found that there are still high levels of dissatisfaction among students up and down the nation…

  • A third of respondents have said that their course did not represent good value for money.
  • Most students were satisfied with their academic experience, though 3 in 10 still rated their experience as poor.
  • Less than half of those in survey said that they could describe their course as ‘demanding.’
  • 45% of students thought that their seminars were actually worth attending.

Unsurprisingly, this news has prompted Which? to wonder if there is anything that should be done in the form of regulation – if we treat other consumer commodities in that manner then why not universities?  You have warranties and guarantees and even consumer laws to protect you in various areas of daily life, so something as costly as university education seems to make sense too, right?

In response to the less-than-great results we see above, Which? listed a few recommendations for a future set of regulations:

  • The headline was this: if a university fails to meet academic and consumer standards, it should be much easier for their degree-awarding powers to be stripped.  One can only imagine the red tape that you’d have to go through to see this happen at the moment….
  • Universities should provide more information to applicants – I’m not sure entirely what this means but one could imagine there needing to be more clarity on what various options are during your course and clearer presentation of procedures and what you can expect of a university.
  • There should be a set standard for handling complaints from students who aren’t happy with some aspect of their course.

Universities UK, the umbrella body for institutions up and down the country, said that there had obviously been a raise in expectations thanks to the raise in tuition fees – ones that took place back in September 2012.
Of course, there wasn’t exactly much mention on if Universities UK felt that the expectations were being reached, but I guess a straight answer out of this is not going to come too easily.

The news of the Which? survey comes as another survey of students – this time of around 4,500 students – found some other interesting insights into university life…

  • 58% of students had noted course changes or fee increases since their course had started.
  • Somewhere around 20% of students had noted there being significant increase in their course – including modules that were previously advertised no longer being available.  There has been a suggestion that the solution to this would be to make universities and students sign contracts to guarantee precise fees and course material – perhaps a step in the right direction?
  • There does, however, seem to be a reluctance to complain – 17% have had a problem with their course since the start of this academic year, though only half of those chose to file a complaint.  Why might this be?  I’m guessing there ‘s a bit of added inconvenience in taking time to complain, but there is another potential reason…
  • Of those who did file a complaint about something, 58% were dissatisfied with the outcome of the complaints procedure -48% felt as though their complaint had been in some way ignored.

So, students hardly painting the brightest picture in the world, a complaints system that doesn’t really hold up… time to be concerned?  Certainly.

Naturally, several different parties have waded into this – the National Union of Students (NUS) Vice President Megan Dunn argued that the market principle that’s being seen from universities isn’t working and has had some damaging effects.  However, the contracts, market information and everything else being suggested might not be the best answer, she argues:

The findings of this report should give the champions of high fees and high debt pause to think again about the way they have undermined higher education’s status as a public good and willed on a generation of consumers.  We need a change of course.

Fair point, but I can’t see the fees changing any time soon – if we’re going to be forced to be lumped with those then I think contracts and forcing universities to guarantee various things and change inadequate practices does appear to be the first port of call.

Anything from Universities UK?  Just the usual cut-and-paste response from them, really.  Their Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge offered one of those useless sound-bites that makes me wonder if they’ve actually read the report or not:

“[Universities are] continuing to work hard to provide prospective students with more information about what to expect from their courses”

Well, that doesn’t really address many of the issues, does it?  It just seems like one of those standard responses, like Which? somehow are on the end of an annoying auto-responder.  Their response doesn’t really mention the report or acknowledge many issues – there’s just a little about unis providing us with some information now and again.  You could write that in your prospectuses.  How about an apology or even recognising that there are unhappy students at the moment? Useless.

Why do I get the impression that nothing is going to change?  Yes, a powerful consumer group has managed to get behind students and the raw deal that they have been known to get… but without political backing, are we going to really see much?  I’ve always called for more regulation and some sort of guarantee for students in that they’ll get a fair deal for the entirety of their course…

Realistically, it’s going to take more than just a consumer report or two.  Without any legal clout, universities and their representatives can keep their emails very much on the ‘holiday’ setting for now.




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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.