Spending watchdog raises 'mis-selling' concern over university degree courses

Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice
Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice
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Graduates in England are saddling themselves with £50,000 of debt while potentially being "mis-sold" degree courses by universities, the Government's spending watchdog has said.

GSir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (NAO), said that if universities were banks they would be investigated for mis-selling, with students being given little careers advice before entering higher education and competition failing to drive down fees.

The report found the proportion of students from England who consider that their course offers value for money fell from 50% in 2012 to 32% in 2017, with "no meaningful price competition in the higher education sector" and racking up debts of £50,000.

Sir Amyas said: "Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice, and the institutions concerned are under very little competitive pressure to provide best value.

"If this was a regulated financial market we would be raising the question of mis-selling.

"The Department (for Education) is taking action to address some of these issues, but there is a lot that remains to be done."

When the Government introduced funding changes in 2011, increasing tuition fees to between £6,000 and £9,000, it expected price competition to drive fees to an average of around £7,500, the report said.

However, student behaviour has shown that higher education is similar to products where consumers equate price with quality - providers are incentivised to charge the maximum, even for courses that cost less, because not to do so could suggest poor quality and reduce demand instead of increase it.

The report quoted figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which found that 87 of the top 90 English universities in 2016 charged the maximum £9,000-a-year fees.

The report added: "Higher education has a number of features that make it a particularly complex market.

"For example, it is inherently difficult to choose a course before experiencing it; most students only attend higher education once and cannot learn from experience; and outcomes are uncertain and depend on the ability and commitment of each student as well as the quality of the provider.

"The decisions students make when entering higher education have lifelong implications for their career prospects, earnings and debt.

"While information available to students to support them in making these decisions has increased, students taking out loans lack the level of consumer protection available for other complex products such as financial services."

The NAO also said university education in England was at risk of becoming a two-tier system, with the poorest students attracted to the lowest-ranked institutions due to market factors.

Its report examined whether the Department for Education (DfE) was maximising the extent to which changing supply and demand signals in the higher education sector supported the Government's drive to offer academic success regardless of background.

Meg Hillier, Commons Public Accounts Committee chairman, said: "The Government is failing to give inexperienced young people the advice and protection they need when making one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.

"It has created a generation of students hit by massive debts, many of whom doubt their degree is worth the money paid for it.

"There are also worrying signs of a two-tier system of higher education emerging, with the students from less well-off backgrounds siphoned off into lower-ranked universities and then lower earnings in their careers.

"Instead of looking out for students, the department has taken a hands-off approach to the sector."

A DfE spokesman said: "Our student finance system removes financial barriers for those hoping to go university, with outstanding debt written off after 30 years.

"We recently announced that the repayment threshold will increase from £21,000 to £25,000, putting more money in the pockets of graduates.

"We will also be conducting a major review of funding across tertiary education to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone.

"Our reforms, embodied by the Higher Education and Research Act, are helping students make more informed choices about where and what to study, ensuring they get good value for money.

"Disadvantaged 18-year-olds are more likely than ever before to go into full-time higher education, including record entry rates at the most selective universities.

"The new regulator, the Office for Students, will go even further to improve access and participation."