Higher Education (Information) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 23rd October 2015.

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Second Reading

Photo of Heidi Allen Heidi Allen Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 2:07 pm, 23rd October 2015

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am quite disappointed that the previous debate did not go on longer;
I was starting to quite enjoy it. I shall be as brief as I can. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science and the shadow Minister, Mr Marsden, for coming today.

Our higher education institutions are regarded as being among the best in the world. As the MP for South Cambridgeshire, with the University of Cambridge on my doorstep, I am especially aware of that. Cambridge University is at the top of the world rankings, and the higher education sector holds considerable value for individuals, our economy and society as a whole.

Going to university is likely to be the most significant financial decision a young person will make. Many young people rightly believe that a university education can provide them with the knowledge, skills and long-term employment prospects they need to secure their future. Higher education is about fulfilling potential. As the Minister himself said last month:

“Now that we are asking young people to meet more of the costs of their degrees once they are earning, we in turn must do more than ever to ensure they can make well-informed choices, and that the time and money they invest in higher education is well spent.”

This Bill supports that vision. Not only will it empower students through improved choice and raise quality through greater transparency in the system, but it will help institutions meet their legal obligations to provide students with up-front and accurate information about their undergraduate offer. There has never been a more appropriate time for students to demand information about their financial investment in their future.

The higher education sector is a rapidly growing market, and it is adapting and offering students a huge range of options. We have seen it expand from being an elite market for the few to one that caters for anyone with a desire to continue learning. I am probably a member of the last generation that can say, “I was the first person in my family who went to university.”

There are now more providers and courses than ever, and year on year there is a continued rise in full-time undergraduate numbers. More than half a million students started university this September, which is up 3% from last year. The Government have rightly supported the development of that sector to meet the growing aspirations of our young people, economy and society. With the cap on student numbers being lifted this year, more people will be given the opportunity to take a place at university, and there is a greater choice than ever before in the type of provider. That was made possible by supportive regulation and easier access to public funds. It is a vibrant, dynamic marketplace with approximately 130 publicly funded higher education institutions in England, 202 further education colleges, and an estimated 674 privately funded providers that offer undergraduate courses, from locally provided courses to specialist provision.

Research by Which? has found that navigating this increasingly complex landscape can be unnecessarily challenging at what is already a stressful time. Why? Because unlike most large purchases, the right information to make such a decision is not readily available. Students are not able to research key aspects of potential establishments and courses, such as teaching quality or employment prospects, because the information is not there. With hindsight, many students say that they would have conducted more research had they been able to.

Having had to make that choice—dare I say, more than 20 years ago?—I know that choosing the right course will always be complex and difficult. A student will never really know whether they have made the right choice until they spend a week or two on campus, perhaps enter the lecture hall, or even until they have graduated. The case for better information to support student choice has been embraced by the sector and a focus for many years. In 2012, the Higher Education Funding Council for England introduced the key information set that requires all publicly funded institutions to provide—as part of their funding agreements—a set of 20 pieces of comparable information about their undergraduate courses. That was an important first step to filling that need for information at a crucial point in the decision-making process, but it is just a first step.

The Bill aims to move that work forward by reforming and raising the status of the key information set, which many in the sector believe is required. It is sensible that all institutions—whether publicly funded or private providers—should be included, and required to provide the same information in the same format to one body, so that prospective students have a full picture of the whole UK education system and what it has to offer.

The Government see value in that. From 2016-17, alternative providers of higher education will be required to provide that key information set data across all their courses. Being able to compare options on a like-for-like basis will increase choice for students and level the playing field for providers. In such a transparent environment the best will flourish, which can only help to maintain our standing as a global leader in higher education.

A Which? investigation published today looked at a third of our universities over two weeks in September this year. It discovered that three quarters—76%—of universities are breaching consumer law by failing to provide prospective students with vital information. Three universities were consistently adopting unlawful practices. How many prospective students about to make that financial decision would be shocked by that? With UCAS applications open for 2016-17, and students having researched their courses and potential choices since the summer, it is shocking that around two-thirds of institutions fail to provide students with up-to-date information on course fees, and that four in five do not state or provide clarity on extra fees that students may have to pay to complete their courses.

Students have a right to know exactly what they are committing to and paying for when they go to university, before they sign up to a course. Universities are still struggling to meet their legal obligations in that area, and the Bill will help them to become more compliant by including some of the key material information that they are required to provide.

Currently, there is an overreliance on information that is not always pertinent or useful. League tables based on research excellence, student satisfaction surveys and an institution’s historic reputation, while providing an insight into life at university, do not always lead to the selection of the highest quality, or most suitable, course to study. To enable potential students to get best value for their investment—because that is what it is—the information provided must be more relevant.

I believe Government has a role to play in empowering students by directing them towards meaningful information at an early stage. Students can then really compare what is on offer and be confident that their decision will best suit their needs, their means, and, ultimately, their future aspirations. How many times have we heard from students picking the wrong course and being disappointed when they cannot find meaningful employment after graduation? Three in 10 students continue to find the information they were given before they started their course to be vague or even misleading. One in three say that, knowing what they know now, they would have chosen a different course.

Under the Bill, much of the information collated will still be included, so it will place no additional burden on our universities. Some information will be replaced with better indicators of quality material information required under law. Overall, however, the amount of information that universities will have to provide will remain the same. In fact, the Bill will help our universities, as it will even out the playing field between publicly funded and alternative providers, and simplify the collection and publication of data through a single body. It will help universities to meet their legal obligations under consumer law to provide material information in a comparable and accessible format to prospective students. Today’s report shows just how much that is needed.

As there are legitimate concerns that vital pieces of information are missing from this key information set—a judgment the Competition and Markets Authority also came to in its review of the higher education sector in March earlier this year—greater transparency from providers will see significant benefits for individual students and the sector as a whole. The Bill will help to provide prospective students with information on their whole journey through higher education, answering key questions that every young person making this decision can have answered and comparing them across institutions. What will it cost me? What will the course be like when I get there? Who will I be taught by? How will I be assessed? What degree will I have when I leave? Perhaps most importantly of all: what can I expect to earn in the long term?

What will the Bill cost universities and higher education establishments? The key information set currently contains information on fees, but not the wider costs associated with a course. The cost of equipment or trips can add hundreds and hundreds of pounds on to a student’s already stretched budget, yet students often find out about them only after they have accepted or started a course. The Which? report published today found in its investigation that more than two-thirds of universities are still failing to provide clear and up-to-date free information to prospective students, or clarity on additional costs. This makes it extremely hard for prospective students to plan their finances effectively before applying and enrolling on a course.

The relationship between a student and a university is complicated. The value of the education is essentially co-produced by both parties. It follows then that from the outset students must have clear information about the expectations placed on them, such as the level of fees and additional costs, the expected workload and assessments to complete, and, in my opinion most importantly, what students can expect to receive from their investment: the qualifications, the staff delivering the learning, the number and type of contact hours, and the qualification they will walk away with after three years. I remember being especially aggrieved at university when I was working 45 hours-plus a week, while some of my fellow students were working less than 15.

There is a real demand from students to have more information about key indicators of quality. That will help them to assess whether a course offered is suitable for their needs and learning styles, is worth a significant investment in terms of time and money, and will equip them for the rigour of their chosen courses. We know that quality can vary widely across institutions, for example, the number and type of contact hours students will receive on a course. Students have expressed concerns about the amount of teaching and level of demand on a course when they get to university. Where students receive less hours of teaching time a week, they are more likely to say their course was poor value for money—and they would be right.

The Bill will also help to make available to students comparable information about long-term employability prospects and the average salary for graduates one, four and eight years after leaving university. It is of course true that going to university is more than how much money one can make at the end of it, but employability is still ranked highly in students’ considerations. At 17, a young person can make life-determining decisions when choosing a career path, whether that be as a lawyer, accountant or software developer. It is easy to find out how long it will take to study, train and qualify, but often little information is available as to where that path will lead them.

This Bill will enable more informed choices to drive up quality in a rapidly expanding sector, while strengthening the relationship between student and institution. This Bill will help to fulfil the potential of UK universities, students, their future and the British economy. I submit my Bill to the House.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education) 2:20 pm, 23rd October 2015

I congratulate Heidi Allen on her success in presenting her Bill to us today. It has clearly been her week. Having polished off the Treasury in our debates earlier in the week, she now rightly turns her attention to the higher education sector.

There is a wealth of focus in everything she has said on the issue of empowering young people with information and data. That will not only help them to make the right decision but drive efficiency in the sector and focus its institutions on those parts of their services that they can improve.

The hon. Lady has made some excellent points about the timeliness of information, the area of competence of the information and the relevance of the information to young people, not just before they come into university or higher education, but subsequently on their courses.

The Bill suggests that the collection of information for prospective students should be focused on one designated body. Currently, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Student Loans Company all collect different data on universities from degree outcomes to admissions statistics for student support. If the Minister has time, perhaps he will say whether the Government have given any thought to which organisation might be charged with taking responsibility in respect of the Bill.

The introduction in 2011 of the key information set—KIS—required all publicly funded universities to provide data on topics such as degree results, employment outcomes, student demography and staffing. This work is also used to inform Government funding and regulation decisions. Can the Minister assure me that providing information for student choice is a key concern of this agency which will not be relegated behind internal decision-making?

Some 11% of higher education provision is now delivered in the further education sector. Information to aid students of all ages to make informed choices is possible in a sector that has the ability to expand its coverage as long as it is not significantly restricted in the spending review. That could benefit many students who want to study nearer to home.

I know that the Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently undertaking a consultation into how the KIS data can be improved. Will the Minister ensure that the evidence provided by the hon. Lady today will be included in the work on this consultation? Is it not important for the Government to reach out proactively to the range of university groups and other stakeholders who have shown their desire to engage positively with increasing information to students, but who have raised their concerns that the current data set is not capturing the real student experience?

The provisions in the Bill refer, of course, to providers of a first degree course, but the Minister will be aware that higher qualifications such as Masters courses and PhDs are increasingly seen as a necessary part of progression for many young people. Will he commit in his response to putting the same focus on transparency and comprehensive qualifications in those areas as much as for first degree courses.

We must not lose sight of the fact that it is not enough for an arm’s length body of whatever nature, or even the Government, simply to collect and publish data. The age range of the group of young people who might be interested in going into higher education and the information they need to guide them through that process varies, but all research and evidence suggests that the age range for which important decisions could be made commences earlier than is often thought. That needs to be taken into account before making any move in the direction that the hon. Lady has highlighted today.

To look at the collection of information without broader access to information advice and guidance is to talk of Hamlet without the play. If the Minister and the Government recognise the value of collecting better data in the form suggested by the hon. Lady, it is really important that information, advice and guidance is of a sufficient quality. Perhaps he could talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education about some of the problems that have affected career services in that respect.

Whoever administers the provisions of a one-stop, one-shop database, it would be a useful contribution to the objective to ensure that the relevant body is recognised by the Government and all key stakeholders as authoritative and impartial. I am sure that that is what the hon. Lady has in mind. However, if that is not matched by a substantial and substantive provision of information, advice and guidance from the Government—whether national or local—young people will not receive the three-dimensional assistance which I am sure the hon. Lady would welcome.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Universities and Science) 2:25 pm, 23rd October 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Allen on securing a place in the ballot, and thank her for her efforts in championing this important issue. I also thank Which?for its support for the goals of the Bill.

We have a world-class higher education system, and more new providers have entered the sector in the last five years than at any time since the big 1992 expansion. Allowing new entrants is part of our approach to creating a diverse and healthy market in which competition can drive up quality and deliver value to students, but a healthy market requires well-informed consumers. Applicants need to know what they can expect from a particular course, and be able to compare institutions across a wide range of criteria. Much information is already available, but the whole sector needs to go further. Improved information also needs to be supported by a regulatory framework that puts students at the heart of the system.

The Bill addresses many key issues, and I shall come on to say more about the type of information that students want. We know that information about what they can expect from university is crucial to young people who are making life-changing decisions. We recognise that higher education is not the only option for them, and that it is therefore essential for them to have the best information and support available so that they can make those huge decisions. If they are to make the best possible choices about where and what to study, individuals need access to robust, timely and objective information about the quality of teaching that they are likely to experience, and what it is likely to mean for their future employment.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, league tables are not always an accurate reflection of the quality of education that is provided in a specific course. We also know that students require a wider range of information on such matters as course quality, teaching intensity, contact hours and the cost of living, all of which are relevant to them. Information from the National Student Survey—involving about 300,000 final-year undergraduates each year since 2004—and the annual Higher Education Policy Institute surveys, undertaken with the Higher Education Academy, provide some insight. Clear priorities for university students were more hours of teaching, smaller teaching groups and better learning facilities, but there is little information for them on such matters.

Some 75% thought that they probably, or definitely, did not have enough information about the way in which tuition fees are spent.

The National Student Survey records scores for assessment and feedback, which have traditionally been the area of student experience with the lowest satisfaction levels. Following focused effort by providers, the level is now running at 74%, up from 64% in 2008. However, one third of undergraduates paying higher fees in England believe that their course represents very poor, or poor, value for money.

As part of our drive for more transparency and better value for money for students, we are developing a teaching excellence framework. As we have already announced, we will set out our proposals in a Green Paper later in the autumn. That will help students to make good choices, and to have ready access to transparent information. We believe that the framework—as promised in our manifesto—will act as a driver of increasing quality by enabling students to make more informed choices on the basis of better information about teaching quality and outcomes, and incentivising the sector in respect of teaching excellence.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Universities and Science)

I want first to deal with the substance of the Bill, so that my hon. Friend will have the satisfaction of knowing the Government’s position.

While I support the spirit behind this well-intentioned Bill, I do not believe that it is the best way in which to achieve our objectives on behalf of students, or to provide them with the increased information on higher education that they need. We do not think it appropriate to put into legislation detailed data requirements which, by their very nature, would frequently be subject to change to reflect adaptations and improvements in the sector. We believe that our forthcoming proposals on the teaching excellence framework will address our objectives in a holistic way and tackle the range of issues that my hon. Friend has rightly raised, including the need for transparency in the sector and the rights of students and consumers to improve their overall experience. Indeed, Universities UK has stated in its briefing note for this Bill that the teaching excellence framework will be a vehicle for introducing many of those measures.

Before I go into the detail, I shall set out the existing work we have done on student information. But first, I will happily give way to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Heidi Allen Heidi Allen Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

What reassurance can the Minister give me—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 30 October.