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Major policy issues facing higher education: a plea for nuance

  • 2 March 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

This is an extract from a speech delivered yesterday by Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director, to an event in the Mills & Reeve Higher Education Week.

Students as consumers

Five years ago, our host, Gary Attle, told in a HEPI paper how students had gradually come to be treated more like consumers. He started by recalling how the concept of students-as-consumers had once been entirely alien, using the words of Mr Justice Wills in 1896:

I cannot think of anything more fatal to discipline than the notion that a contractual relationship exists between the college and its undergraduates.

Exactly a century later, in 1996, some students started an HND in historical vehicle restoration a couple of miles down the road from where I live, at Rycotewood College in Thame. The staff and students dismantled a car but, like Humpty Dumpty, they couldn’t put it back together again. A judge later found, ‘None of the teaching staff had any practical experience at all as professional old car restorers’.

Unsurprisingly, the students complained. Years later, a court ruled they should get £10,000 compensation each, including £2,500 for mental distress, with more for the student whose car had been taken apart. It was a clear example of students being treated more like consumers.

Since then, the shift towards high fees and loans (in England and Wales) and the growing interest of bodies like the Competition and Markets Authority in higher education have accelerated the trend. The key insight of the most recent HEPI paper, by Rosie Bennett, a former journalist at The Times, is that universities have become ‘the ultimate consumer story.’

The disruption caused by COVID means practice is still evolving. On Tuesday, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) for England and Wales will publish its next set of case studies on dealing with complaints during the COVID crisis. I urge people to read them.


Higher education institutions have rejected the idea of across-the-board refunds in the current crisis. Such payments could affect the financial sustainability of some institutions and there are three other good reasons why blanket restitution has not been forthcoming.

  • First, teaching is still happening, albeit differently from normal. Where there are particularly big challenges, such as with placements and practice-based courses, the Quality Assurance Agency’s guidance has outlined what providers should do.
  • Secondly, good teaching and good student support services cost a lot of money whether delivered in person or online: no one says schools should get fewer resources in the crisis, as the challenges of teaching children during a pandemic are widely acknowledged. The same arguments apply to higher education.
  • Thirdly, there is a mature complaints system at both an institutional and a sector-wide level. This may not be as well understood as it should be, but it can lead to compensation. Students should make use of it when they feel they have a robust case.

There may be an argument, as Anthony Seldon wrote in a recent HEPI blog, for the Government to compensate students. But an automatic mass refund scheme is more difficult than is often recognised because over half the costs of the current system are paid by taxpayers rather than students or graduates, thanks to the progressive repayment system.

In short, the current debate about restitution for students is hard because we have a hybrid model of student funding that trades off different priorities against one another:

  • it expects a hefty financial contribution from better-off graduates…
  • …but taxpayers willingly pick up the tab for those who earn less…
  • …and there are no limits on student places in England – which could prove especially useful with the expected further bout of grade inflation this summer.

Trade offs in higher education policy

I start this way because the question of whether students are consumers and whether they should receive refunds illustrates a broader truth about current higher education policy debates: we are at risk of treating complex questions as if they are simple. The big issues are often portrayed in monochrome rather than full technicolour.

  1. On funding, two years on from the appearance of the Augar report, Ministers have still not ruled out a big cut in tuition fees and some elements of Whitehall clearly want a university education to be delivered for less. Yet a reduction in funding for teaching could leave universities with a binary choice for stemming their losses: either shutting courses or piling students in as a way of chasing a higher income. However, as the recent row about the subject English at the University of Leicester shows, institutions are under pressure not to close courses and we have also been told the era of expansion is over.
  2. On access, thanks in part to the work of the Office for Students, there is a better understanding than in the past of the benefits of contextualisation in university admissions, whereby applicants’ backgrounds are taken into account. Yet the Office for Students also now want the background of students at higher education institutions to be deemed irrelevant when judging institutional performance. As we showed in a paper on non-continuation rates published in January, unless this is implemented carefully it could risk disincentivising the recruitment of disadvantaged students in the first place.
  3. On free speech, headlines have been won for the idea of appointing a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion. We recently ran a blog supporting the idea by Arif Ahmed from the University of Cambridge but we have also published the warnings of Nigel Copsey, a historian of anti-fascism at Teesside University, who says the approach could prove counter-productive if is provides succour to provocateurs posing as advocates of free speech.
  4. On raising skills, we have fewer people whose highest qualification is at Levels 4 and 5 (what used to be called ‘sub-degree’) than our competitors. There is a consensus that we need more skills at these Levels, but this is often accompanied by alongside the idea that we have too many graduates. In fact, the data suggest the reason we have too few people whose highest qualification is at Levels 4 or 5 is that we have too many people whose education topped out too early, at Levels 2 and 3 – it is not because we have too many graduates relative to other developed countries or the needs of the economy.
  5. Not long ago, the autonomy of universities was confirmed in the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). Yet some recent political interventions – for example, on admissions – suggest autonomy may be falling out of vogue. If universities are not entirely free to compile students’ reading lists, autonomy loses meaning.
  6. The English regulatory model is based on the idea that student interests should be paramount – that’s why we have an ‘Office for Students’. But the primary official way of capturing the student voice, the National Student Survey (NSS), is having a ‘radical review’ and will have ‘at most a minimal role’ in judging the future quality of provision. This seems the wrong way around to me: the limitations of the NSS are unlikely to be fixed by slimming it down and making it less meaningful. At the moment, the annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey remains the best source of information on a wide range of issues – such as contact hours, workload, class sizes, well-being and value-for-money perceptions – and, frankly, we would welcome some competition.

Rather than acting as if such policy areas are black-and-white, we would do better to expose inherent complexities, reflect upon them and then embed them in policymaking. Voters know instinctively that smart policymaking happens at the crossroads where trade offs occur – the current COVID crisis is all about trade offs, such as when to lock down and when to open up, who should get vaccines first and which sectors of the economy to support the most. The four vice-chancellors that HEPI and Advance HE brought together last week for a Question Time were united in believing higher education policymaking should become more nuanced.

My concern that current policy is too one dimensional is not just directed at the UK Government at Westminster. The trade offs in higher education policy are reduced to oversimplistic alternatives in other parts of the UK and by other political parties too.

  • When the Official Opposition say their commitment to abolishing tuition fees remains in place, no one explains how this can be adequately funded given the impending growth in 18-year olds.
  • In the run up to the Scottish Parliament election this May, politicians from the SNP to the Scottish Conservatives are stressing the progressive features of ‘free’ higher education but without explicitly recognising this has meant the retention of student number controls.
  • In some parts of the trades union movement, there has been insufficient recognition of the trade offs between the high costs of employing permanent staff (because of things like existing pension entitlements) and the precarious contracts of early career staff.

Such trade offs need to be discussed, not brushed under the carpet. For when you recognise trade offs exist, you have to decide how far to give way on any issue in the interests of other valuable concepts worth protecting. So the question is not how to reject any trade offs; it is how to get the balance right when responding to them.


  1. Sue Graham says:

    Really interesting. Absolutely agree we need more nuance and honesty. Do you have a data source to back up the statement:

    ‘the data suggest the reason we have too few people whose highest qualification is at Levels 4 or 5 is that we have too many people whose education topped out too early, at Levels 2 and 3’?

  2. Albert Wright says:

    The complexity of HE needs to be recognised and trade offs are inevitable given the restrictions on funding.
    However, I disagree with any plans to increase funding for Universities.
    We have too many students / graduates and post graduates for the “needs of the economy “ – ask any employer.

    When it comes to trade offs, we have too little investment in education for those below the age of 16. To help those from disadvantaged backgrounds we must start well before the age of 18 to release potential and support inherent talent and those with the energy, ability and determination to succeed and prosper.

    The whole of our education system needs to improve its productivity, efficiency and effectiveness while creating a much better understanding of what society is seeking to achieve from educating the population and how we will measure success.

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