Will university courses pay their way?

As university fees rise, how can we help would-be students assess whether their degrees will offer real employment prospects – and value for money? Gareth Dent reports

How much will it cost in fees to study full-time at university from 2012? And will it be money well spent? Most readers of The Independent will know that the figure in most cases will probably be something less than £9,000 a year and that the most sensible answer to the second question is probably "it depends". It will also be evident that without a clear answer to the first question, it is difficult to answer the second.

Unfortunately, it is pretty difficult to answer the first question because the published fee may not be the same as that eventually paid by the student. We now know, thanks to the Office for Fair Access (Offa), that universities plan to spend just over £600m a year by 2015-16 on "access measures". That is, activities to encourage wider participation in higher education. The universities will not actually spend close to two-thirds of this sum; rather, they will forego it, as the money is simply returned money to students who have paid fees, either in the form of fee reductions or wider financial support. Nevertheless, this investment in access should be welcomed and it is worth bearing in mind that at £7,800, the average annual fee faced by students will be significantly less than the widely discussed £9,000.

There is clear evidence in the Higher Education White Paper that the Government is uncomfortable about this average fee level and would like to see it decrease. The opening of the HE market to new entrants is perhaps the most obvious example. Endeavouring to bring about greater efficiency in teaching and learning is a highly controversial idea, but it could be that greater competition will drive fee levels downwards. In addition, there is significant potential for alternative models such as open learning and part-time undergraduate courses to make it possible for students to offset some of their future debt by combining learning and earning.

But is access really just about fee levels? Undoubtedly, many families will baulk at the thought of the scale of debt that is going to be associated with higher education. Young people may have a better understanding than their parents of the financial returns to higher education. That, and the lack of viable alternatives, may strengthen their determination to go anyway. The universities' access measures may bolster their determination still further.

So just what are the universities proposing? The Offa website provides the opportunity to examine the access measures in great detail as it lists the access agreements agreed by the institutions and Offa. Generally, these agreements are impressive documents setting out in detail the plans to support young people thinking about studying at higher level. One could criticise the almost exclusive identification of the access issue as being about young people, but the commitment is clearly in evidence.

For example, the agreement for the University of Sheffield, the university with one of the highest proportions of undergraduates from state schools, runs to 20 pages of detailed measures with benchmarks and targets for improvement. Looking at the agreements, the words that spring out are "outreach" followed by "advice".

Outreach activities seem a reasonable component of any access strategy. Making connections with potential students and seeking to dispel preconceptions that they might have about the experience of higher education through campus visits and other similar engagements cannot be a bad thing. Advice, however, is a more problematic activity. Firstly, while individual institutions are clearly well placed to engage in outreach, it is less clear that they are the appropriate bodies to offer advice. Well-meaning but partial, ill-informed advice has the potential to damage students' career prospects.

Those familiar with the particularities of our education system know that a degree carries all sorts of signifiers depending on institution, subject and degree class. Employers know and reinforce this, too. What hope of the potential student, faced with institutions with targets to meet, being advised to go somewhere else better suited to their aims and interests?

The HE White Paper confronts this issue, promising a "new careers service in England by April 2012, built on the principles of independence and professionalism". This isn't a new development, as it was previously announced by John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education and Lifelong Learning, in November 2010.

This, too, is to be welcomed; mainstream careers advice for young people has suffered in recent years. The well-intentioned but direly under-funded Connexions service struggled to balance the long-term needs of many with the pressing needs of the disadvantaged few. As a result, the service gained a reputation among young people for being for those in trouble – and an irrelevance for many of them.

The promise of a service from April 2012 will not help the first cohort of students going to university in Autumn 2012, as they will be thinking about career and study choices already and face a range of deadlines for applications that start as early as 15 October this year.

Moreover, there is a bigger problem with looking to advice to provide the solution to the challenge of access to HE. That problem is complexity. The HE White Paper identifies 20 items in the "key information set" that potential students should be able to consider when deciding. These items range from student satisfaction with the promptness of staff feedback through to the recognition of courses by professional bodies and the impact on the student experience of the Students' Union. When a student has to make a decision on the subject to be studied and institution in which to study, the number of items in the key information set multiplies into a matrix that many will find unfathomable. Data and knowledge are not the same thing: the student is likely to be drowning in the former and have little of the latter.

In addition to relying on outreach and advice, there is a further policy instrument at the Government's disposal, and one it seems reluctant to deploy. That is to make the fee structure simple and binding. Institutions would be free to fix their fees at a limited range of price points and then not be allowed to offer discounts. Get it wrong and they would lose students, which makes it an effective incentive to charge the minimum fee. This would drive some of the complexity out of the system and make it easier for students to choose. Note that I said easier, not easy.

Gareth Dent is chief executive of the Open College for the Arts, and was previously responsible for developing the national careers advice service Learndirect

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