Is the student customer always right?

Graduates Students have been promised more consumer rights in the White Paper on universities

After the thunder and lightning of the tuition fees battle, this future vision of higher education in England is an attempt to change the mood music.

Instead of images of riot police and pitched battles in Westminster, this higher education White Paper puts the government on the side of the student.

It's a way of turning the searchlights away from the political difficulties of tuition fees and budget cuts and training them on universities instead.

Consumer rights are being showcased. The market economy in higher education will mean students have to be treated as valued customers. Because, after all, they're paying the bill. As it says in the White Paper's title: Students at the Heart of the System.

If universities insist on charging the £9,000 maximum tuition fees, the government is saying, students can demand value for money. What are the job prospects? Where is the new gym equipment?

And if the traditional universities are too expensive or too inflexible, then the government is ready to usher in a new breed of private providers, ready to break up the cosy insularity of the old order.

Even the title of "university", long guarded as an academic crown jewel, is going to be put under review.

Instability

But is the "customer is always right" the best starting point for a university system?

Exam hall Extra places will be available for students getting grades AAB at A-level

University leaders are sounding underwhelmed about the way competition is going to work for student places.

They've already had to accept that the withdrawal of teaching budgets will mean the future viability of courses will depend on the fees paid by students.

This has raised concerns about instilling instability rather than competitive energy. If a subject falls out of fashion for a couple of years, should be it be abandoned? University departments can't be turned on and off like a tap.

And now they've been told that a quarter of places will be up for grabs.

Those at the top will be fighting for the high-flying students with grades AAB at A-level. And there will be another bidding war based on price - with about 8% of the remaining places to be for institutions charging less than £7,500 per year.

Both the Russell Group, representing the most prestigious universities, and the Million+ group representing the new universities, are warning of unintended consequences from these attempts to push down prices and make universities compete.

Rather than wanting to compete for extra places, some university leaders talk privately about retreating to a smaller number of subject areas where they know they can attract a reliable number of students.

It's a move from the supermarket to the boutique.

There is also disquiet that pressure to encourage cheaper providers into the market, and lower the average fee cost, will have a disproportionate impact on some universities.

The overall number of places is going to remain constant, but opening up a quarter to competition means that someone is going to lose out.

Labour politicians have argued that the undeclared driving force of the White Paper is the need to create a mechanism that pushes down fee prices, when so many universities want to charge the maximum - which Labour says the government can't afford.

Social mobility

The 1994 Group, representing research-intensive universities, warned that the emphasis on student choice and lower-price providers left universities still uncertain about the future of much of their work.

University staircase Universities will have to compete for places, including with private providers

The group wanted to know where the details were on research and postgraduate students.

After the political train crash of the tuition fees for the Liberal Democrats, the coalition partners have been keen to emphasise the importance of social mobility.

It's a phrase that seems to get tagged onto every official statement about universities.

But in this White Paper, the balance seems to have been firmly tilted away from the social mobility side of the debate. Apart from a possible strengthening of the Office for Fair Access, there is little that's new.

Even the prospect of students applying after they receive their grades - once expected to be part of this White Paper - has been kicked into the long grass for future discussion.

The Bridge Group think-tank, which recently launched its campaign for social mobility through higher education with a speech from Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg, warned that the plans would have a "negative impact" on social mobility.

Meanwhile, a couple of free-market touchstones - allowing students to make early repayments on loans and extra places for individuals sponsored by private businesses and charities - both make an appearance in the White Paper.

Lifestyle experience

But what will it mean for students?

Universities will be keener than ever to attract their applications - and students will have much clearer information to help guide them through their decisions.

The freeing up of places also begins the process of questioning the idea that places at top institutions should be rationed.

It challenges the idea, deep-rooted in schools and universities, that good things are only ever available in small measures.

Why shouldn't talented youngsters be able to learn in institutions that reflect their potential and ability?

But these students will also be acutely aware that they will be paying three times as much as those studying at the same universities in the years before them. As student leaders have observed, it's consumer power with a hefty price tag.

There is also another often unspoken cultural change accompanying the idea of a consumer-driven university system.

Universities want to be places of ideas, ideals and academic excellence, but they also need to attract young people willing and able to pay up to £9,000 per year, plus accommodation and living expenses.

Are universities going to be selling lifestyle and leisure experiences as much as the old-fashioned currency of learning? No one wants to see universities end up as expensive academic theme parks.

This White Paper promises to put the students into the driving seat of higher education - but it can't control where they are going to take it.

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