‘Does higher education offer students value for money?’ This is one of the key questions behind the latest report on higher education from the consumer group Which?. 

The report – ‘A Degree of Value’ – calls for reform on a number of fronts: better information and advice for students, improved complaints procedures and other consumer protections, and changes to the regulatory system.

The research behind the report says that approximately 3 out of 10 undergraduates paying higher fees thought their experience was poor value. HEFCE is never happy without a robust evidence base, and the research sample sizes look relatively small compared with our 2014 National Student Survey (NSS), which is based on 320,000 responses from UK students in their final year. Of those students who responded to the National Student Survey in 2014, 86 per cent said they were satisfied or strongly satisfied with their course.

However, this leaves a significant minority who weren’t satisfied. The report provides an important challenge to all of us who are involved in and care about higher education. There is good work going on, but we’re also very clear that there is room for improvement. So, what’s HEFCE doing? The thrust of the report’s recommendations dovetails neatly with the work we’ve done so far on this front, and which we are planning to do in the future.

A number of the recommendations are in the immediate field of vision of our review of information provided for students. The review is looking at a range of things that are important to students: better data on salary and longer-term job prospects, information about how courses are delivered, and helping them to navigate information based on their own learning preferences.

Which? also recognises the complexity of student decision-making. HEFCE’s most recent research in this area shows that decisions are highly personal, and that students do not necessarily make ‘objective’ choices about which university to attend, or course to do, based on rational analysis of all the available data. Put simply, more data does not necessarily lead to better decisions.

Context is key. Students need the information that is useful to them in the ways and places they look for it. And our research tells us that the most frequent place that students visit are university and college web-sites. Unistats and the Key Information Set were specifically designed to work within this context and complement the information institutions provide.

But our research indicates we can strengthen the role information plays in driving improvements in students’ experience. Where students are highly engaged they are more likely to succeed in their learning.   We will consult next year on including new types of question in the National Student Survey from this angle to strengthen the role of the survey in improving quality.

Over the coming months we’ll also be looking at future approaches to quality assessment. HEFCE is legally required ‘to secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education’ in the universities and colleges that we fund. Legalese aside, this is fundamentally about reassuring the public that higher education maintains good standards and supporting excellent teaching and learning – crucial aspects of a good student academic experience.

In a fast-changing and increasingly diverse higher education landscape, we need to make sure that the system remains fit for purpose, and retains the confidence of students. So over the coming months, we’ll be asking students, the higher education sector, and others to step back and ask what quality assessment should look like over the next decade.

We’ve recently held roundtable discussions to explore what more can be done to protect students in the event of course closure or provider failure. The issues are complex and cannot all be resolved without further legislation. But this is another area in which clear information for students (about university life and not just courses) has an important part to play.

A final thought on the ‘students as consumers’ debate. Notions of consumerism understandably underpin the Which? report. And the spotlight that the Competition and Markets Authority is shining on consumer protection issues for students in higher education is an important contribution. But we must not lose sight of the importance of student engagement: it would be a mistake to consider the ‘value’ issue just through a consumer lens.

Students do not just buy a service when they go to university. They become partners, ‘co-producers’, in their education. Where they are encouraged and challenged, where they put effort into their studies, where they are actively collaborating in their learning as part of a vibrant academic community, they are more likely to have successful learning experiences. HEFCE is working hard to help this happen.