Do students embrace a ‘consumerist ethos’?
Another new report has just been published on English higher education and the impact of recent reforms. The report was commissioned by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), and the work was carried out by a team from King’s College London. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the authors refer to their report as addressing issues in ‘UK higher education’, but they clearly are dealing with England only, as the developments they describe are not found in Scotland or the other devolved regions. It has to be said that this is part of an increasingly common and occasionally annoying trend to write about ‘UK higher education’ as if it all followed the pattern of England, which plainly it does not. There is no UK system of higher education in that sense.
But I digress. The key substantive point of this report is that recent changes to university funding in England have created a student attitude which the authors describe as follows:
‘Findings have indicated that a consumerist ethos of value as financial return on investment is prevalent within perspectives on both education quality generally and critical incidents in students’ experiences. This ethos was illustrated by the persistent equating of financial investment to academic contact hours on a weekly or yearly basis, with contact time being seen as a tangible measure of return for tuition fees.’
This does raise some interesting questions. Long before tuition fees were a feature of the landscape of these islands, questions were being asked about how students should see themselves within the higher education system. Were they learners, or partners in an education process, or customers of educational institutions, or consumers of an educational product? Furthermore, how would any such understanding that students might have or might develop influence pedagogy and strategy? And how would recent policy moves, whether in England or elsewhere, have influenced this picture?
There is a lot more wrapped up in this than just a question about the impact of tuition fees. As pedagogy has evolved, the idea that students should see themselves as undergoing a passive teaching experience has been increasingly rejected; instead they have been invited to see themselves as stakeholders or partners in a process, which in turn justifies them in making demands as to outputs. When you then add fees it becomes increasingly complex, as was shown in a 2011 Guardian online live chat in which the contributors could not easily agree on what status students have within the system. Perhaps the important thing to take away from all this is that students are now much more emancipated participants in higher education, entitled to form their own views as to what to expect from it. Whether that becomes a ‘consumerist ethos’ probably depends on how universities present the experience. The rush by English (and other) higher education institutions to push fees to the permitted upper limits has perhaps encouraged students to nurture ‘consumerist’ instincts.
Overall, we need to take a step away from presenting higher education mainly as a financial issue: funding, fees, pay. These are important, but they are not the essence. Right now a dispassionate observer might not recognise this, and that is a problem.