Opinion: The flaw at the heart of the Higher Education White Paper

Get your hands on a copy of the Higher Education White Paper and take a look at what the university sector might look like in the future. The government is promising a shiny-bright student-focused experience for all as you make your well-informed choice from a multitude of quality providers jockeying to meet your every higher education need. Welcome to Uni-Mart, where the student -consumer is king.

Except… their consumer experience won’t feel very regal under these proposals, because this White Paper contains a major flaw: it wants to encourage competition between HE institutions in the belief that a market approach will drive up standards, but fails to provide the necessary mechanisms to allow students to participate in such a market as capable consumers.

This is a wasted opportunity on the part of the government – universities will not have sufficient incentive to improve their “student experience” now, whilst facing the danger of being overtaken in the medium- to long- term by the new entrants the government will allow into the system. It is also manifestly unfair to the student – they are being asked to pay considerably more for higher education without the rights or economic power that one might think would accrue with such a change.

A student’s choice of institution will be based on lots of factors – living costs, reputation, specialism, support and so on – but near the top of everyone’s list will be the quality of the teaching. As things stand, in most universities students have little influence on the quality of the teaching they receive. Even with the best of intentions from the institution and its teaching staff, this does not create a strong structure for incentivising improvements. Addressing this point, the White Paper proposes that universities should collect, and students should have access to, more data about teaching, accommodation etc, so that they are better informed before they choose their course or institution. There will also be better regulation of teaching from HEFCE.

That really isn’t good enough, though. If they are paying more or less in full for their courses, students should have more rights to influence the quality of their “experience”. Currently, students’ points of leverage are limited: students cannot withhold their tuition fees in whole or part or get a rebate because of a badly taught course; they cannot easily transfer their accumulated credits between institutions at the end of a year in search of better teaching; and the quality of accommodation in student halls often leaves much to be desired. Even speaking out about poor teaching or to criticise a lecturer presents a risk – how might such an action be reflected in future marks, funding awards or places on postgraduate courses?

Universities’ traditional characterisation as institutions providing academic apprenticeships, where eager learning by a bright few was indulged by cloistered researchers, has largely passed. Nowadays, students won’t accept the crumbs of learning offered down from up high; they want high-quality teaching that provides stimulation, training-for-life and value for money. Universities need to respond to this, and be forced to if they are reluctant by the government’s further empowerment of the student. The White Paper lacks sufficient bite in this area and we should be looking to get some real clout for students introduced in to the proposals so that institutions’ management has to listen to what they say.

Another key area that we should be looking into is teaching training for lecturers as part of their employment or research grant contracts. Although many lecturers do get some training, not all do, and hopefully this is something that HE institutions will want to introduce for all their teaching staff, but it should, perhaps, be mandatory. Making credits earned more easily transferable between institutions would also be a step forward – universities would have a greater incentive to hang on to students by responding to their concerns.

The best universities in the UK will continue to thrive despite the various changes to higher education, as they have well-established reputations and strong funding streams, and we trumpet the education they provide as one of the UK’s great exports. But let’s own up to a bit of a dirty secret: a significant chunk of our higher education sector is not good enough, getting away with poor teaching, accommodation and student support, whilst taking our money and overseas students’ money without much comeback. The proposals in this White Paper will not help drive sufficient improvement in these institutions.

Accepting for the time-being the principal of a competitive market in higher education in the UK, let’s hold the government to its word and use the rhetoric of competition that’s throughout this paper: Uni-Mart needs capable consumers, ie students who are as economically powerful as they are informed. Let the students in the shiny-bright new world of UK universities have some real bite.

Alex Feakes is a Liberal Democrat council for Forest Hill ward in the London Borough of Lewisham. He occasionally blogs at www.alexfeakes.org

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  • You hardly mention research – and this is quite typical for people trying to make policy in this area. It’s either research or teaching – but a good university has to do both, not least because you want the teaching to be informed by up to date research.

    Of course, one of the reasons why the standard of teaching has dropped significantly is because government funding streams have been incentivising research. Most academics are hired solely on their potential to produce ‘world-leading’ research. And once they are in post, they are rewarded and appreciated only for their research, hardly ever for teaching. This is driven by the REF – a government-driven exercise which looks at universities without considering the teaching side of things. You won’t find good academics who are willing to be hired for specific teaching jobs. Teaching jobs tend to be low paid and are a tool to exploit postgraduates and postdocs who can hardly defend themselves if they want a ‘proper’ career.

    As long as we can’t find a sensible way of combining teaching and research, and a way of valuing both properly, allowing both to thrive alongside each other, UK universities will not remain competitive in the international context.

    I also think that your arguments concerning the potential effect of the market are flawed.

    You acknowledge that universities aren’t simply a product that’s easily subject to normal market forces – but then you argue on a basis which assumes exactly that. Students should move between universities to incentivise better teaching. However, there are reasons that they rarely do, and that’s not the dificulties in transferring credits (that’s actually not all that difficult, and is happening often enough). But the disruption to their lives, losing friends, and so forth is a pretty big price to pay, and I think it’s an illusion to think that we’d ever get a highly mobile student body which moves year by year in order to get to places where the best lectures are.

    Ultimately, this marketisation is likely to lead to a ‘railways’ effect – increasing amounts of state money being sunk into a sector which can’t improve due to a false privatisation which can’t ever lead to the kind of competition that works in a proper market, combined with over-regulation that leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.

    I find your description of the potential of the market in this context terribly naive, to be honest.

  • Students aren’t consumers. Paying money is no guarantee of success in education if standards are to be maintained. They might well acquire £27k worth of debt through study, but unless they have the ability and motivation they could end up with nothing, or a third. They have every right to expect a minimum standard of teaching, but should not ever be encouraged to believe that they are buying a degree.

  • Lawks, 30 years of campaiging and donating to get … this.
    A first year undergrad reading anything could teach the govt a few things. Heaven help.

  • @Andy Mayer

    Student feedback including questionnaires (which are effectively student reviews of courses and teaching) already exist. The QAA require any Higher Education provider to include comprehensive and randomised student feedback for all courses they provide at the end of every academic year. Sure, you could argue the results of these quality reviews should be more openly accessible to prospective students but I would certainly warn against relying solely on Amazon-esque review systems for rating institutions and courses. The same problem that plagues sites such as ebay and amazon are also problematic in HE quality reviews. While you may get a large number of good, constructive and critical reviews, you’ll also get reviews that are maddeningly unhelpful or simply vindictive but nevertheless have to be included regardless of how they badly they may distort to the overall feedback. Of course the NUS could try and incorporate success rates or internal and external moderation and verification to try and offset outliers like the QAA do. Or maybe they include a little “thumbs up / thumbs down” button.

    4 out of 5 users found the following review helpful

  • Andrew Waller 29th Jun '11 - 12:17am

    This hits the nail on the head – students will not have the power to ‘shop around’ as economic consumers and so to pretend that they are is a fatal flaw. University education policy has become our Iraq War, and we need to sort it out quickly.

  • Chris Riley 29th Jun '11 - 8:46am

    I appreciate that with such a fundamentally flawed White Paper you only have so much space and so have to focus on only one of the myriad issues, but whilst you rightly touch on the point that students cannot be consumers if they can’t influence their providers sufficiently, the concept fails on an even more fundamental level than that.

    (And that’s even before we get to the issue of whether our entire higher education system, with the jobs and innovation it represents, should be subject to the whims of 18 year olds who, to put it politely, often have rather odd views about the world)

    Students can’t even make informed choices about their courses because the information they really need doesn’t exist. There is no meaningful way to compare different courses at different institutions using existing data because the data was (and is) designed for a different purpose. It’s very good data, by and large, for its created purpose, which is to help graduates make choices about their future careers and to help inform instutitions about the landscape for early graduates. It’s also supposed to underpin future, detailed research into graduate careers which nobody particularly wants to fund.

    What it is dishonest to pretend – and, make no mistake, the Government know this – is that data about outcomes taken very early in a graduate’s career give a sensible, meaningful and robustly evidenced measure of course ‘value’, when careers – and even local labour markets – vary so wildly. The only way this data could work is if every degree was on a national curriculum and if the labour market in every region of the UK is exactly the same. But they’re not. So if, for example, you want to study physics and find that outcomes in Southampton show an unemployment rate of 9% six months after graduation and those in Manchester 9.5%, does that tell you physics in Southampton is better? What if more graduates from Manchester enter financial services but more from Southampton enter science? You’re 17, you don’t know if you want to be an accountant or a physicist yet. You might decide you do now, but in 4 years time, you might have changed your mind. You might look at the two institutions again and see that, on graduation, Southampton graduates earn £250 more. Is Southampton still better? Is that £250 sufficient to overcome the cost of living You can look at the whole suite of information – students in Manchester might be happier with their course. Which is better? You don’t, and can’t know.

    And you’ve just made these 17 year olds, who don’t know what they want and haven’t been given the data they need to make an informed choice, the arbiters of our university system. And you’re cutting the jobs of the careers advisers who could support them, by the way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 9:21am

    Maria is quite right – for many years now the funding mechanism for UK universities essentially gives all the incentive into doing research and none into improving teaching. I’m a university lecturer who has been nominated three year running by my students for an award for my teaching, yet my career hangs in the balance because I have not churned out enough research papers. Government funding of universities under the last government really did mean that every hour spent doing teaching and admin and not research was another nail in my coffin. Not only does research bring in more money, but it’s also the main factor (directly and indirectly) in a university’s position in the league tables. In my experience (one of the admin jobs I did because I was stupid enough to volunteer because I cared, rather than just to stick to research was my department’s admissions tutor) MOST university applicants make a judgment on which university to go to on that factor – university X is higher than university Y in the league tables, so go to X. So improving teaching doesn’t even do you any good in attracting better students, it just means as you aren’t doing so much research, you slip down the league tables, and get worse students.

  • Chris Riley 29th Jun '11 - 9:21am


    Without going into too much detail, I know Unistats very well indeed. It is to be overhauled yet again, but it does not address the fundamental problems – there is actually nothing very much wrong with the way Unistats presents the complex data it has to play with.
    (One of) the problems is the data itself does not work for its new intended purpose, and that *the Ministers know this*.

    Another is that nobody has a very clear understanding of what students genuinely want in terms of information or how to deliver that information in ways that suit them. This is because the research has failed to take into account that students are not always aware of what is available, and if they are asked, ‘Would you like X’, tend to say yes without reflecting (because they’re not asked) on whether they would actually use ‘X’ were it provided and if so, how. There are reasons for that, but as I said, you could pretty much populate an entire website with detailed discussion of the problems with this White Paper.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 9:41am

    Making credits earned more easily transferable between institutions would also be a step forward – universities would have a greater incentive to hang on to students by responding to their concerns.

    This misses the real problem. No university is going to turn away good students who are knocking at their door. In the cut-throat competition for good students, attracting second year entrants from the first year of lower placed institutions is a standard technique. It’s considered a bit dirty, so I never went as far as hanging about outside the doors of the University of East London’s Computer Science department handing out leaflets saying “Got a 1st class mark in your 1st year exams – why not come to QM our doors are open?”, but I didn’t exactly turn down applicants coming that way. Our Academic Regulations allow us to exempt a student from the requirement of passing the 1st year if they have passed the 1st year of another university, and I think you will find similar applies in most places.

    The big problem, however, is that the curriculum just does not come in completely independent chunks. The second year modules depend on what is taught in the first year, the third year modules depend on what is taught in the second year. There is no “national curriculum” in universities, and long may that be the case – the fact that each department sets its own curriculum based on its own knowledge, expertise and experience is a valuable way of making sure we have a diversity of provision, and also does allow a synergy between our research and our teaching. However it means that someone who has passed the first year modules at one university may not have covered what is necessary to pass the second year modules at another. The result of imposing a full credit transfer system would be the imposition of a dumbed-down dull uniformity.

    This is certainly what I experienced when I took in applicants who had done well in the first year at lower ranking universities. We found they often failed because the first year they had done just did not cover what was in our first year, so they struggled in our second year. In the end I often had to say “Yes, I’m happy to offer you a place, but you’ll have to start in the first year”. It is tragic to have offered someone a placed in your second year, but then to have to fail them – the person is stuck, they can’t go forward, they can’t go back.

  • Alex Feakes said:

    “Another key area that we should be looking into is teaching training for lecturers as part of their employment or research grant contracts. Although many lecturers do get some training, not all do, and hopefully this is something that HE institutions will want to introduce for all their teaching staff, but it should, perhaps, be mandatory.”

    Alex is absolutely right! A Lecturer may be very good at his or her subject and very knowledgeable, but they cannot actually TEACH because they don’t know how, they don’t have the teaching skills! I have sat in front of many a Lecturer who was hopeless at teaching the subject – as an ex-teacher myself, this struck a very raw nerve. I had to complete a three-year teacher training course (in the days when there were any) and six teaching practices and this stood me in good stead later. I took my degree after I retired, mainly because “non-University graduates” were looked down upon in the teaching profession by those who were Honours graduates – and they were paid up to two scales higher too.

    I think the whole matter of teacher training needs to be re-visited, as does the funding of research in the Universities – more money should be going into developing useful academic courses instead of the “fringe” subjects.


    I fully agree with Maria’s first three paragraphs. There is far too much emphasis on research rather than teaching. To be honest, I don’t take account of the REF Grading Exercise results – they are only an indicator of how many members of staff are conducting research and churning our high numbers of books per year. What is more, very often Chairs in a subject are only awarded on the number of books which a members of staff has written, so someone who has not been prolific has no chance of getting a Chair in his or her subject.

    One part of this is that, in addition to getting Salaries while they are on sabbatical doing that research, they also get the research grants for which postgraduate Students are also competing. This us hardly fair as many PG Students don’t get any of these research grants because it is based on academic merit not financial need. In my opinion, members of staff can well afford to do this research (often done at home) without claiming Research Grants – they are on high enough salaries. So that is one anomaly which needs to be sorted out.

  • Alex, I think you underestimate the effect of the market forces. If you look at any newspaper league table of Universities, you would find that, for every University, there is at least one other that is essentially similar, recruiting students at the same qualification level and achieving a similar performance across a whole range of indicators. The competition between such Universities was dampened in the past by an explicit allocation of student numbers by the HEFCE. As the HEFCE regulation is gradually withdrawn, and the measures mentioned in the White Paper are only the starting point, the competition between the Universities will be quite fierce. In fact, no other country has such an open competition among its Universities. (Even the US has a HE sector that is mainly dominated by the State Universities, despite what we see from this side of the pond, and the State Legislatures allocate funding and student numbers. So, it is quite regulated.)

    Once the open competition kicks in, there will be a tremendous pressure in all the Universities to improve their quality and lower the costs. The White Paper talks about various ways in which the students will be provided information about the relative performance of the Universities. But perhaps the most important is the “KIS” format that HEFCE has devised. You can find more information about it here:

    Key information for students

    As you know, there is already a national survey on student satisfaction, and the students rate their University on a range of criteria. As competitive pressures mount, the Universities will be forced to improve their performance on the NSS. This information will be directly available to all the applicants through KIS information sheets.

    The ability of students to move between Universities already exists, in theory. However, it is used relatively little. Competitive pressures can increase such movement. If a University is hurting for student numbers, it can try to wean students away from a competing University. However, even without such movement, I think the competitive pressures between the Universities will force them to raise their game.

  • @Uday

    As I outline above, the KIS is not the right tool for the purpose. You will be forcing institutions to compete when they know that the information being used by their customers is not appropriate to assess them effectively.

    It is perverse, and it will not – it cannot – work properly. It also looks suspiciously like a get-out-of-jail-free card for some of the more complacent but high-rep institutions (there are some institutions that are trading on past achievements) at the expense of some of those who have improved a great deal without press attention or deal with non-traditional student bodies. I rather agree with Kim Catcheside in the Guardian that it does seem to rather unfairly attack the post -92.

    The White Paper lacks nuance. It has no appreciation for the fact that not all institutions have, or should have, the same aims or seek to accommodate the same students and makes implicit assumptions about who should be going to universities.

    It also, incidentally, entrenches A levels, which at least has the significant, although easily-achieved, benefit of making Michael Gove look foolish, but makes reform of the post-16 qualification system even more difficult – unless, of course, the Lib Dems don’t think that people with other qualifications should go to Russell Group universities.

    I don’t believe that for a minute, but goodness me, someone from the Lib Dems ought to have raised it.

  • Why not just sell all the universities to Sainsbury’s and Tesco and have done with it? If it’s a question of satisfying consumers, they are the experts, after all.

  • Alex – I am not quite sure what policies you are advocating that are not in the white paper. Univs already have the right to accept transfers in, are you saying that they should be obliged to accept students who pass at other univs? As others have said, there is a lot of info out there at the moment, and will be even more.

    My comments on the White Paper can be found here: http://centreforumblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/students-at-the-heart-of-the-system-review-of-the-white-paper-on-higher-education-tim-leunig/

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