Attending university is one of life’s biggest financial decisions. But young people aren’t able to assess the value of their investment, the National Audit Office (NAO) points out.
It isn’t their fault, the NAO says. Young people have ‘insufficient help and advice’. At the same time higher education (HE) institutions are under ‘little competitive pressure to provide best value’.
Delivering public services via ‘markets’ is supposedly aimed to increase ‘competition’ and ‘drive effective and efficient service delivery, better quality, and greater innovation’. This relies on consumers having ‘knowledge of the options and their benefits’.
The Government hopes to ‘achieve social and equality objectives in public service markets’. A typical private market, the NAO writes, ‘would often struggle, or fail’ to ensure all groups have equal outcomes. In HE, the Department for Education (DfE) attempts to reduce this risk by requiring universities charging maximum fees to have ‘fair access agreements’ intended to increase participation from under-represented groups.
But ‘public service market aims’ aren’t always met, the NAO says. There are many reasons behind ‘market failure’. All relate to HE:
Careers advice, the NAO writes, is ‘poorly targeted’ and ‘doesn’t always reach’ disadvantaged young people who need it most. The poor quality of careers education and guidance is a recurring theme on this site.
‘Point of sale’ protection is weak, the NAO concludes. HE is a complex product and isn’t regulated to ensure customers ‘understand risks and uncertainties’. The Office for Students ‘may make some improvements’ but its remit doesn’t include the kind of consumer protection found elsewhere, the NAO warns.
There are also problems with the ‘supply side’ including:
The NAO lists two further concerns:
The DfE is ‘taking action on a number of issues…But the HE market has substantial challenges that DfE and the new regulator, the Office for Students, will need to understand and grapple with in taking forward their reforms,’ concludes the NAO.