In the coming weeks the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, will announce the terms of reference for a review of student fees. The cross-party investigation is likely to recommend an increase in tuition fees from £3,225 to as much as between £5,000 and £7,000 a year, increasing the proportion of courses costs paid back by students after graduation. But if universities want the right to charge higher fees, there is growing political consensus that they must also be prepared to improve greatly the experience they provide for undergraduates.
Details of the review were apparently being delayed because David Willetts, the shadow Universities Secretary, wants the review to take account of students' experience at university. He is concerned about contact hours, class sizes and employability and believes that any inquiry into fees must look at whether students are satisfied with what they are getting.
There should, however, be potential for cross-party agreement, because Lord Mandelson is on record as agreeing with Mr Willetts's sentiments. Recently, he told a CBI conference: "As students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more, and are entitled to receive more, in terms not just of the range of courses but in the quality of experience they receive during their time in the higher education system."
Mr Willetts also argues that potential students should have better information to guide their choices. He says there should be much more detail about the likely earnings from gaining a particular degree, and students should be able to rate their lecturers and professors online, just as millions give their views about hotels on Trip Advisor, the holiday reviews website.
To be fair, the Unistats website already provides quite a lot of readily accessible information about faculties and universities. And the National Student Survey, now in its fifth year, offers a fascinating picture of what students think about their courses. Indeed, no student should apply for a course without first reading its findings.
For example, someone wanting to study law at Bristol would find high levels of satisfaction with the quality of teaching and library facilities on the course, but less with the quality of feedback and support. Nevertheless, the principle that there should be even more information, and that it should give a picture of career prospects beyond the three postgraduate years covered by existing surveys is surely right.
More important, vice-chancellors need to recognise that both students and parents are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the amount of time students get to see their lecturers and tutors. Of course, a large part of the university experience should be about reading around a course and doing independent research, but there is a sense that the pendulum has swung too far, particularly for first-year undergraduates.
The Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that the combination of teaching and private study for undergraduates in some humanities and social science courses amounts to just 14 hours a week, though it is much higher in the more demanding universities and the average is 29 hours, including 14.5 hours' contact time. But the higher the fees become, the greater the expectation of students and their parents.
This isn't just a problem with domestic students. Overseas students, who contribute £4bn a year in fees (more than eight per cent of the total income of UK universities) already pay £10,000 to £20,000 a year for most courses. Their numbers have grown over the last decade, but there is greater competition within Europe, Australia and the United States, and Chinese and Indian students increasingly have less expensive options closer to home. Unless they feel they are getting good value for their money, they will go elsewhere.
Some universities are recognising how important it is to provide a good student experience. Lancaster, Manchester and the London School of Economics give students clearer commitments on contact time, class sizes and access to lecturers than many. Others, like Northumbria, provide substantial hands-on facilities and work experience in subjects such as law and health.
But there is still a sense among too many vice-chancellors that they should be allowed to charge higher fees without needing to improve substantially students' overall academic and pastoral experiences. That's why the terms of reference for the new review must explicitly include the issues that Mr Willetts suggested.
It will be hard enough selling another fees increase to Middle England. Unless their anxieties about what happens at university are addressed, it may prove politically impossible. Vice-chancellors must raise their game if they want the right to raise their fees.
The writer is a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He blogs at www.conorfryan.blogspot.comReuse content