Call for 'Consumer Revolution' in Britain

November 18, 2010

British students plan to launch a "consumer revolution" against a sector they see as unprepared for the consequences of marketization and high fees. The National Union of Students has demanded that sector-owned quasi-government entities be replaced by tough new regulators with the power to protect students from "collusion" on fee levels and to impose "genuine penalties" for malpractice and maladministration.

With students saying that they have been let down by politicians and the "deafening silence" of most vice chancellors on the issue of the cuts facing the academy, Aaron Porter, the NUS president, said the union had no choice but to "completely change" its approach.

The Browne Review -- which led to the deep budget cuts and tuition increases being pushed by the British government -- had ushered in an "era of sticks and not carrots," he said.

Addressing a conference of sector leaders in London last week, Porter said he took no pleasure in delivering his message and would continue to fight for an "alternative vision." However, he feared that time was running out. "If we face into the cold and unforgiving winds of a substantially free market, I will not allow students to be let down by weak regulation permissive of misbehavior and unfair practices," he said.

If Parliament votes for higher tuition fees, he would seek to bring about "a consumer revolution in higher education."

This would mean a “totally changed structure and remit” for the Quality Assurance Agency, which in its current form could not deal with the "cut and thrust" of the new market. "I don’t want national bodies telling universities what they should teach or how … but I do want an independent organization giving students and applicants an independent opinion of the quality of what’s on offer,” he said.

"The idea of a principal part of the accountability machinery being 'sector-owned' has had its day as far as I’m concerned. Do the water companies own Ofwat? Do the broadcasters own Ofcom? Of course they don’t, and it would be absurd if they did. It needs a total change of direction."

A national student charter must set down “enforceable minimum standards” and a new watchdog must examine market practice in the sector – and have the power to refer matters to the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission, he proposed.

"Ranging from high-level action such as preventing collusion on price, to examining prospectuses and other advertising for accuracy and fairness in what they represent and promise, there will be a desperate need for this form of scrutiny," he said.

Students must also be given the legal right to move to another university if they discover they have been "misled by the market" and a money-back guarantee, he said. "Serious penalties" for universities that fail to make progress on widening participation must not be merely promised but actually delivered, added Porter, who said the government’s plans would “utterly and irreversibly transform” the relationship between universities and their students.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, backed Porter’s proposals. "We need a body that is independent of everybody, including the government; which reports to Parliament, not government; and which provides an annual report on quality and standards in higher education," he said.

Peter Williams, the former head of the QAA, said: "Now that education, and higher education in particular, has been turned into part of the retail sector, it is natural that students will see themselves as nothing more than shoppers." But Williams added that consumer protection would not come cheap. "Ofcom comes in at more than £120 million [a year]. The QAA – indeed owned by the sector, but by no means controlled by it – is a snip in contrast at £11 million."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, said the NUS had for some time been at the "forefront" of promoting the idea that consumer consciousness was the defining identity of students. "Consumer consciousness encourages a conflict of interest between student and teacher," he said. "Such conflict will promote a free-for-all that can only have destructive outcomes for education."

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