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Chris McGovern: How about some value for money in our universities as fees are set to rise?

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Should universities be allowed to increase tuition fees in line with inflation? This question may seem superfluous at a time when deflation remains a concern.  Nevertheless, it features centrally in the Government’s consultation paper on higher education. In all probability, the real value of the current maximum fee of £9,000 will, in time, be whittled away and governments do need to plan for the future. The question of future fee increases, then, has to be addressed.

The Government’s proposal is that any fee increases must be linked to teaching quality. In other words, in ‘market-economics speak’, universities should be given financial incentives to ensure that they are offering a high quality and ‘value-for-money’ product to their customers, the students. The suggestion here, of course, is that some universities are providing sub-standard fare for their customers.

Most students, though, seem happy enough with their courses. The most recent National Student Survey (2014) showed an 86 per cent satisfaction rate – a ten-year high. The fact that no Russell Group university made the top ten suggests that there may be room for improvement in some quarters, but the general picture looks rosy enough.

The Government is probably right, however, to guard against complacency creeping into the system.  As with so much in education once one scratches below the surface, it is often the case that all is not quite what it seems.

A few years ago The Guardian reported allegations that some students were being placed under pressure by their universities to give their courses a high rating. It claimed that a lecturer at London’s Kingston University had told his students to give the university good scores on the National Student Survey on the perfectly understandable grounds that, “if Kingston comes bottom … no one is going to want to employ you because they’ll think your degree is shit.”

These days, concern about the reliability of the data from the National Student Survey seems to have been swept under the carpet or supressed. It was not always so. Back in 2008, Lee Harvey, the director of research and evaluation at the Higher Education Academy (HEA), told The Times Higher Education Supplement that the National Student Survey was a “hopelessly inadequate improvement tool.” The HEA has a responsibility for professional standards in higher education. He was subsequently suspended from his job and, then, resigned.

Fortunately, we do not need to rely entirely on the National Student Survey for information about the extent to which students are prepared to express any dissatisfaction with their courses.

Last year, for example, the Consumers’ Association reported that 46 per cent of first and second year students felt that their degree was not worth the cost in fees. Furthermore, 51 per cent felt that the quality of teaching they were receiving was lower than they had expected. Around the same time The Economist reported a student ‘drop out’ rate of 28 per cent. These ‘drop outs’, of course, were not part of the constituency for the National Student Survey.

The Government is right, then, to be seeking more quality control in higher education but, in the interests of our economic well being, it should stop obsessing about ‘academic’ courses. It would be far better to convert half of our universities into vocationally-orientated technical colleges or polytechnics. According to a survey by the online recruitment company totaljobs.com almost 50 per cent of all recent graduates wished they had steered clear of academic courses, opting for ‘something more vocational’ instead.

If fees are to be increased, higher education qualifications need to lead somewhere.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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