Horses and water…

Every year a certain amount of Parliamentary time is dedicated to Private Members’ Bills. These are opportunities for individual MPs to present legislation on practically any topic. This year’s crop illustrates the wide variety – we have bills on riot compensation, exemption from hospital parking charges for carers, and Highways (Improvement, Traffic Regulation and Traffic Management). Amongst the list is the Higher Education (Information) Bill being presented by the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen.

The summary of the Bill indicates that it is “to require information to be made available to prospective undergraduate students about what is provided to students for the tuition fees charged, how tuition fee resources are expended and what is expected of students; to establish transparency in how tuition fees are spent; and for connected purposes”.

There are a number of potential issues here and I’ll say now that I am not privy to what will be included in the Bill so all of this is guesswork. We’ll hopefully know more when the Bill gets its second reading on 23 October. Firstly, there is the level of detail required – are universities going to be expected to provide such detail on a course by course basis? There would seem little value in the Bill if it didn’t and so the assumption is that it will be expected that there will be different costs for different courses. So costs such as Estates, IT, the Library and indeed academic time will need to be apportioned across different courses. The cost to universities in calculating and providing this information will increase depending on the level of accuracy required.

If, on the other hand, all that is required are aggregate costs then there seems to be little value to the applicant. There will still need to be some apportioning of costs (how much academic time is spent on teaching activities compared with research for example) and as such institutions will need to justify how they have split such costs if they are to avoid accusations of top loading the tuition fee spend.
Regardless of the level of detail, there will be a cost to the universities of putting this information together. However, I would question how much use applicants make of the information that is already available to them. I know of several 18 year olds that are (hopefully) heading to university in September and none have made use of the Key Information Set in making their choices. I realise there is an element of horses and water here but is there any evidence that providing this information will really lead to a significant number of applicants being influenced by how their money is spent?

I am not against transparency and I do believe that there is value in demonstrating how income from course fees is spent. However, I am not convinced that there is a strong business case for providing such information, nor do I believe that it will radically change the way that applicants make their choices. Regardless of the level of detail provided, there will be a cost to provide it, as there is a cost of meeting the requirements of other legislation. How many institutions will be open enough to include a line detailing the cost of providing the information required?

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