Customers, consumers, traders? What are students?

Just over a year ago I raised the question of whether it is appropriate or helpful to think of university students as customers. Are they buying something from us (or is the state doing so on their behalf), and if so, what does that suggest should be their attitude and ours to the ‘transaction’ between us? Across the Irish Sea in the UK, this is a question that is being asked with increasing frequency. In part this is because in England (and Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland) tuition fees are now payable, and indeed are rising. This has prompted the question whether students, conscious that they or their families are paying, are becoming more demanding as they insist that they receive the appropriate service.

I dislike the latter way of looking at it. In fact, I dislike it a lot. I believe that students have rights when they enter a university, and that these rights are not in some way different because they either do or do not make a financial contribution themselves. They have a right to expect a good education, just as they have a responsibility to contribute active participation and effort. Education is a process experienced in partnership between the student and her or his tutors. It costs money, and somebody has to pay it (though in Ireland we don’t appear to have grasped that yet, properly), but the exact identity of the purchaser isn’t critical, it seems to me: the beneficiary, with all rights, is the student.

In the UK the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has now entered this debate, and he has suggested how students should approach their courses:

‘It’s a change in culture and attitude that we want to encourage. As students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more and are entitled to receive more in terms, not just of the range of courses, but in the quality of experience they receive during their time in the higher education system. If there is a degree of passivity then, I hope, that without rejoining our student population to take to the barricades, that they become pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience. Therefore teacher quality and the quality of the teaching experience is going to become more important.’

Lord Mandelson’s speech contains further reference to the changing assumptions of higher education, to the prospects of reduced public spending and the need for universities to diversify their income while also expecting closer scrutiny and control – themes with which we are now well familiar in Ireland. But what this shows is that the shifting patterns of funding and the current tight budgets are having an unpredictable impact on financial and operational autonomy for universities. It is clear enough that the old assumptions are dead, but we don’t yet have new ones. If we are to have a confident and internationally competitive system of higher education, we need a greater consensus around this. Let us hope that our own current strategy processes will help to deliver that.

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7 Comments on “Customers, consumers, traders? What are students?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Is the question of identity not the fault of the universities. You can hardly blame the students for being a tad mixed up when you do not know if you are independent, dependent or both. And if both when does it lean one way or the other.
    But the really hilarious thing, that Labour has left wide open a hostage to the rest of the Education system. How would you like it if ALL the Establishment cash followed the student. For no matter how you cut your cookies if you follow the track that is the logical future.
    And much as CoI ABp Neil thinks he is being hard done by on the Schools, it is his own bloody fault. If some Atheists kid wants to attend and cannot afford it, or RC for that matter, they are not protected. You cannot ring-fence State cash for poor CoI kids any more that you can for any other group.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    Maybe we should consider students as members of an academic community, rather than purchasers of a service. The fee is for membership and as with a professional body it brings benefits, access to resources, but also a commensurate set of responsibilities, an ethical framework and code of practice?

  3. Donal_C Says:

    Recently I visited a university in Quebec. Students there pay fees. Upon matriculation, they frequently view themselves as consumers. Yet, these fees are also heavily subsidized by the public purse. This has led some faculty members to tell students that they are their products or resources. Over the course of their studies they are fashioned into outputs intended to be useful to a variety of stakeholders (employers, communities, the academy etc.). The ‘student as a resource’ paradigm might have some advantage because it implies that the interests of students and faculty are broadly aligned (something not as apparent if students are consumers).

  4. Vincent Says:

    It seems, that it is so difficult to think M101 and Coptic.
    FYI, the Church of St Catherine on the Sinai is orientated to the morning

  5. Iainmacl Says:

    Hmm.. i see a new report from UKces is mentioned in the Guardian today, indicating that they favour a single internal league table for universities which includes a measure of graduate’s earnings per course and student sastisfaction as a means of planning funding and supports. Essentially a rampant free market with courses starting and folding depending on demand. Given that league table systems introduced in schools and the health system there are now being rolled back after years of distorting service provision, this sounds particularly perverse, albeit attractive to government because of the savings in terms of the removal of the need for so many quangos and agencies.


  6. Firstly let me state I beleive all universities (unless fully paid for from private money) are public service providers. I have addressed funding in another post here, but I,ll say my funding opinion briefly here, I think universities should be wholly funded from the public purse.

    If my Utopia was ever achieved I would expect graduates to contribute an extra sum of money from their salaries to cover the cost of at least some of the education services they receive.

    Then a high quality standard could be demanded by public scrutineers in a pre agreed format.

    I get fed up with graduates seeking higher pay than, let,s say a road sweeper, and their main justification is “because I spent five years in college”. They seem to think because they went to college they have done the rest of us a favour, and I feel it,s the way our system treats them that makes them somehow come to the conclusion they are owed a living from the rest of us.

    My system would clearly make them see that college is an investment of their time, in their future.

    I know the country needs graduates also to exist and serve the economy, but Irish students get a fairly good return on their investment for themselves, and IMHO, they very seldom strive to give anything back.

  7. Iainmacl Says:

    sorry…that message gut truncated when network dropped…link to story is here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/oct/22/league-table-plan-for-universities


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