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Supporting informed choice in higher education

  • 30 January 2015

Louisa Darian from Which?, who partnered with HEPI on the 2013 Academic Experience Survey, writes exclusively for HEPI on how to support people in the midst of choosing what and where to study. We are grateful to Louisa for this guest blog.

Next month the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is due to publish their final guidance setting out how consumer law applies to the higher education market. As well as helping to ensure that providers’ terms and complaints processes are fair and transparent, we believe that there is potential for the CMA’s guidance to deliver real gains for students by ensuring that providers fill a significant information gap; but also for providers by recognising where really good practice is being delivered. The draft guidance suggests that material, essential – and therefore mandatory – information includes course composition (the qualifications and experience of teaching staff, amount of private study expected, amount and type of teaching) as well as total costs. This information is not currently included in the Key Information Set (KIS), and is often not available from providers’ prospectuses or websites either.

In our recent report, ‘A degree of value’, we found that many prospective students do not research aspects of the academic experience at the time of making their choice. Yet when they get to university one-third say that the academic experience is poor value for money and that they would have conducted more research in hindsight (see chart below).

Factors that undergraduates and graduates would have researched in hindsight

There will always be some students who base their choices on the nightlife, or where their friends go, but in a market where it is difficult to switch access to good information and advice can provide students with a clearer sense of what they can expect and what is expected of them. This is currently lacking in higher education. Information on the academic offer within the KIS is limited to the proportion of time that students can expect to spend in scheduled teaching and private study, rather than the actual number of hours. It also draws heavily on students’ views of quality rather than more detailed information on the composition of the course.

In the past, some people working for the the sector has been cautious about the information that should be provided to students, arguing: that quality is difficult to measure; that students do not want more information; and that the costs and practical challenges outweigh the benefits. We disagree. These are complex issues but they are manageable:

  • While quality can be difficult to measure, there are indicators of good quality such as teaching qualifications and close contact with staff which students can draw upon. Without any measures of quality, there is a risk that students then use other factors like price or entry grades. This means that providers that are delivering excellent teaching do not get recognised, and that poorer practice is not addressed.
  • If information is presented in an accessible and comparable format, and alongside contextual advice, it can help students to compare courses and create a shortlist to consider in greater depth. Our free-to-use website, Which? University, has been visited by over six million users since launch, which shows there is demand for help with this complex process.
  • Costs need to be proportionate, but with students paying nearly £9,000 a year and a third of students saying they might have chosen a different course in hindsight, the cost of making the wrong decision is much greater for students, especially when it is so difficult to switch. Some of this information, including on teaching qualifications, is already collected but not within the KIS; and some providers, including Coventry, are already providing information on the amount of teaching in differently sized groups and total costs.

We hope the CMA’s guidance leads to more helpful information for students and we look forward to working with the sector so that we can use this information on Which? University to help support choice.

However, we also think that there is an opportunity to improve the impact of this information by including it in the KIS, and exploring what further information might be included. Our report set out what we think should sit within a reformed KIS, including better information on the academic experience and course costs but also on financial support, support to enter employment, longer term employment outcomes and complaints.

HEFCE has plans to consult on the KIS this autumn for revisions to be made in 2017. In the interim, the sector should come together to consider how, at the very least, the information in the CMA’s guidance can be collected and presented in a format that means students can benefit earlier.





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