There is no evidence that the Department for Education’s most recent reforms to the higher education system have had any of their intended improvements, MPs have warned.
Parliament’s powerful cross-party Public Accounts Committee outlined the “symptoms of failure” that pervade the higher education market, and criticised the department’s failure to improve both careers advice and social mobility at universities.
In a new report, the PAC said that “much rides” on the new regulator, the Office for Students, and it called on DfE and the OfS to set out clearly how they intend to measure progress and regulate universities more robustly.
The Department for Education introduced reforms in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 which aimed to introduce more competition and options into the higher education market – such as shorter, part-time or online courses, which have not emerged – as well as to improve the advice for prospective students.
But the PAC report found that while competition has increased, there is no evidence that this will improve the quality of education provided. The government had assumed that universities would vary their tuition fees to attract students, but instead most have kept fees at the maximum level and simply increased their marketing budgets.
DfE has not articulated well enough what value for money looks like in the higher education market, the committee said. Funding for higher education has increased by 50% since 2007-08.
Nor has DfE succeeded in improving the quality of careers advice offered to teenagers making choices about moving into the highly complex higher education market, the PAC said. The department published a careers strategy in December 2017, but the MPs called for DfE to set up an evaluation framework so it can assess progress made on that strategy.
Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the PAC, pointed out that the choices facing prospective students are among the most critical they will ever have faced, and that their decisions have a significant bearing on their life prospects and the wider economy.
“It is therefore deeply concerning that the evidence indicates government’s approach to the higher education sector is letting those same students down,” she said. “The advice available to help students, in the overwhelming majority of cases teenagers, make informed choices is inadequate.”
The department was also criticised for failures in widening participation in higher education. DfE is “over-reliant on the actions of some universities” while others are not pulling their weight on outreach work in disadvantaged communities, the report said. A Social Mobility Action Plan has been launched, but the MPs called for more evidence that the department was maintaining pressure on universities to evidence improvements in socioeconomic diversity.
The 2017 higher education reforms included setting up a new market regulator, the Office for Students, tasked with ensuring students receive value for money from higher education and widening participation.
The committee was particularly concerned that the OfS ensures it is set up to protect students’ interests, particularly if they are unhappy with the quality of their course and want to seek to transfer between institutions or reclaim their fees.
Hillier said: “Should students then be unhappy with the course they choose, they are not sufficiently empowered to switch providers or get their money back. At the same time, government can provide no evidence that competition between institutions will drive up the quality of education they provide.
“These are not indicators of a market working in students’ best interests. Rather, they are the symptoms of failure.”
Hillier called on both the department and the new regulator OfS to be clearer on their priorities within the higher education market, and how they intend to achieve them through regulation, stronger measurements of progress, and remedial action where necessary.
She added: “Much rides on the ability of the new Office for Students to function as an effective regulator and as a priority we expect it to set out in detail exactly how it will approach the task of safeguarding students’ interests.”
Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, responded to the report: “There are record numbers of 18 yearolds going to university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our reforms are continuing to open up access to higher education, and enabling students to make informed choices about what and where to study.
“But we recognise that there is more to do. The Office for Students will go even further to improve access and participation, championing the interests of students.
“Our review of post-18 education and funding is also looking at how we can drive up quality, increase choice and ensure value for money for students and taxpayers.
“We will consider the report’s recommendations and respond in due course.”