Higher education needs to deliver value for money

Following a period of rapid reform, a new Which? report questions whether the higher education market is delivering value for money for students and finds that the current regulatory system is no longer fit for purpose. 

Our report, ‘A degree of value: value for money from the student perspective’, uncovers a number of issues across the market affecting value for money and finds students are currently lacking key information to make the best choice for them.

Our new report, looking across the sector, highlights a number of areas of concern where action should be taken including:

Students unhappy with the academic experience 

Our survey of students on their academic experience finds that only half (49%) think the amount of work they have to do is demanding, only four in ten (39%) say the content of the work is stretching and less than half (45%) feel that seminars are generally worth attending. A quarter (26%) say you can get away with doing little private study and still get good marks.

Unfair course changes and unsatisfactory complaints handling 

Our survey of 4,500 students on course management and complaints finds six in ten (58%) have experienced a change during their university course such as changes to modules or location of teaching and one in ten (12%) experienced an increase in tuition fees either part-way through the year or between years. A third (35%) of them thought it was unfair.Of students who experienced a problem in the last academic year and complained to their university, six in ten (58%) were dissatisfied with the way it was handled and half (48%) felt it was ignored.​

Poor value for money

​Our survey of graduates found a fifth (18%) felt the experience at university was poor value for money – despite them paying around a third of the fees that current students pay. The top reasons were inconsistent teaching quality (53%), not enough support to find a good job (53%), too few contact hours (47%) and too many cancelled sessions or poor timetabling (45%). ​A third (35%) said they’d be unlikely to go to university now faced with higher fees.

Our report concludes that a new regulatory system is needed to guard against poor value for money. Universities must ensure they are more transparent about the academic experience, the support to get a job, and level of complaints. This will naturally put them under greater scrutiny and help the regulator to improve standards. They should also ensure that their terms and conditions comply with consumer protection regulations.

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said: 

“We are rightly proud of our university sector with institutions that are regarded among the best in the world. The next phase of reform for this market should protect that reputation and help students get the best value for money from higher education.

“We want to see better information for prospective students, improved complaints processes and a strong regulator that enforces high standards across the sector.”

Which? is calling for:

  • Improved information and advice: The Government to require universities to include better information in the Key Information Set to help people make an informed choice, including on: the academic offer, costs and financial support, support to get a job and long-term job prospects, and complaints.
  • Improved consumer protection: Minimum standards for complaints and a standard format for higher education contracts should be introduced, and all students should have access to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
  • Improved regulation: The Quality Assurance Agency should use the revised Key Information Set to inform inspections, and focus more heavily on standards to ensure this market works in the best interest of students. In the longer term, it should be easier for degree-awarding powers to be removed from failing institutions.

The Competition and Markets Authority is currently carrying out a review of the regulatory system in undergraduate higher education in England, and this should inform the wider changes that are needed to improve the system.  

The Which? Consumer Rights website has advice on what to do if you’ve had a change to your degree course, and how to complain to your university or course provider. 

Notes to editors: 

To see a full copy of the report visit the downloads section.

1.    Methodology for undergraduate survey: YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 1023 first and second year undergraduates online between 5th and 10th June 2014. 508 were first year students and 515 second year students.

2.    Methodology for course changes and complaints: YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 4,519 students in second year and above, online between 9th and 29th October 2014.

3.    Methodology for graduate survey: YouthSight, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 997 graduates who had graduated with an undergraduate degree in the last 5 years, online between 10th and 15th June 2014.


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