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Why students should be wary of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information

Independent advice on the new system of tuition fees, loans and repayments is exactly what potential students need. But how independent and credible actually is the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information announced last week?

There doesn’t appear to be a list of the individuals on the ITSFI. But it has announced itself and said it will be composed of people from “the National Union of Students, the National Association of Student Money Advisors, UCAS and the higher education bodies Universities UK and GuildHE”. It is to be led by Martin Lewis, the founder of the popular consumer finance website MoneySavingExpert.com, who says he is not being paid. And its deputy leader is to be Wes Streeting, the former president of the NUS.

That seems to make clear that the majority of the people on the task force will be from the universities, their lobbyists or agencies. That is logical because it is only the universities that have the money to fulfil Lewis’s ambitions for the task force. He said last week, “I hope this initiative will spread unbiased, best-of-breed apps, websites, speakers, video, print publications, ambassadors and more.”

So the one group this task force is not going to be independent of is the universities. Indeed, for all the prominence given to Lewis and Streeting in the initial announcement, this looks more like a universities committee with a couple of external voices than anything else.

But of course it is the universities that want students to take out loans, so that they can be paid for their courses. It is essential to universities that students do not conclude that the loans on offer are unattractive for any reason. If they do, both the income and academic standards of many universities are at risk.

So this is essentailly like car manufacturers setting up an “independent” task force to advise consumers on car finance. Except that in this case we are talking about loans that are maybe five times as big as you need for a new car. No one would take that kind of industry panel seriously. Why treat this one differently?

Well, universities are not car dealers. There is a difference. But the conflict of interest is real. And I am unnerved by what has already happened.

Clearly the task force has it in mind to produce a website explaining it all to students. But such a website already exists. It was set up by the government several months ago and is called Future Students. As I pointed out on Friday, this is busy spewing out voodoo garbage at students, who are likely to discover upon graduation that their loan repayments are possibly twice as big as Future Students promised them.

Where have Lewis, Streeting and all the student money advisers been? They are supposed to be expert and concerned and, we are asked to believe, independent. Why haven’t they been telling 17 year olds to avoid Future Students, and the government to get its facts straight?

I can believe that Lewis and Streeting (and indeed other panel members) are trying to do the right thing. But the two are unpaid and hence with limited time to spend on the issues unlike their academic colleagues, for whom it is their professional lifeblood. Lewis also faces his own conflict of interest as he is building up his own web site’s traffic in the area.

And both seem too ready to me to say everything is fine and all that needs to happen is for us to “dispel any ligering misunderstandings”. In my view, a lot has changed in the way the system works, the amount of money at stake and the risks faced by students. Indeed, a lot of major decisions that will affect students are not actually finalised. We need to understand properly what the new system is and what the impact of the changes will be before informing potential students about it. Otherwise, we’re just salesmen.

Presumably, the word “independent” in the task force’s name refers to independence from government, a point Lewis has emphasised in some correspondence with me. But even that is not as clear as it could be. There have clearly been backroom discussions with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, promotion of the task force by BIS and promises of assistance by BIS. Again, I would be much more relaxed about that if Lewis’s own guidance on student loans hadn’t repeated the line and errors on the Future Students website set up by BIS.

And as far as potential students are concerned, there is currently a slick central website telling them about the new system. Once the task force has got its work done, there will be a slightly different one doing the same thing. To some extent, government and universities have a shared interest: they both want students to accept the new system as a good deal and not be deterred from university.

I would be much happier if the ITSFI did the following things:

* Write to BIS demanding the withdrawal of misleading guidance on the Future Students website

* Appoint a clear majority of non-university sector people to the panel, including experts in consumer rights, debt, the law, banking and overseas student loan systems

* Appoint an informed skeptic to the panel such as the philosopher Andrew McGettigan

* Appoint a heavyweight chair with adequate paid time and support

* Commission a thorough and comprehensive report on the new system before producing any materials.

Otherwise, I suggest someone starts up a truly independent and credible task force on student financial information.

Update 9.30am I’ve had a tweet from Jim Dickinson, director of campaigns and strategy at NUS, explaining its position. He says, “We agreed to join but warned that it must stop the propaganda.”