Heidi Allen: Why universities must offer a higher degree of transparency

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.

My Higher Education (Information) 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.

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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.

There are now more providers and courses than ever. More than half a million students started university this September, which is up three per cent from last year. The Government has 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. 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. 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, or even until they have graduated. The case for better information to support student choice has been embraced by the sector. 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. .

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 institution – 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.

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.

A Which? investigation looked at a third of our universities over two weeks in September this year. It discovered that three-quarters – 76 per cent – 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.

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 is worth a significant investment in terms of time and money.

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.

This Bill will help to fulfil the potential of UK universities, students, their future and the British economy.

Heidi Allen, from Wakefield, is Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire and proposed the Higher Education (Information) Bill to Parliament. This is an edited version.