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.

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8 Comments on “Do students embrace a ‘consumerist ethos’?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    *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.*
    I think you can safely omit ‘perhaps’ from the above, the high level of fees surely had an impact, although I would concede that it is not the only factor which has nurtured students’ ‘consumerist instincts’ (much could be said about the use of the term instinct in this context). Fees are not the only factor for the simple reasons that HE is not an isolated phenomenon, it reflects and reacts to everything else which pertains to society, a certain consumerist ethos is certainly not unique to the sector and not exactly a novelty either, what we are witnessing is perhaps a consolidation of such an ethos underpinned, among others, by a technological trend toward ‘quantification’, including the Self (but this would be a longer discussion to have…)
    On the status of the students within the system, a very interesting paper has recently been published by the Leadership Foundation, aimed in particular to HE senior managers. The paper ‘provides a summary of evidence about what makes for a better student experience, including the relations between teaching, assessment and the quality of student learning; the impact of leadership on academics’ teaching; the significance of student engagement and study time in determining student success; the relevance of curriculum issues; the relations between research and teaching; and the importance of recognising teaching performance.’ Full text available at

  2. V.H Says:

    Say there is a single subject Arts course for ease. In the past there would be 100+ persons reading for it. All passing over to the university the fees equivalent. Now we have up against £10,000 in fees per year. Now since there is no way in hell it costs a million to run the course this course is a cash cow to the university. Since many taking Arts are reading it as something to do and will eventually provide the university with another bite of the fees cherry selling them post grad top up’s for the professions. Won’t this new fees regime have that reverse compounding effect where a goodly percentage will decide to forego the joys of philosophy/Classics history or the languages and go direct to whatever they are going to attempt making a living, leaving the Arts to the church and the very few wealthy enough to brew and fulminate within hallowed halls.

  3. Camille Kandiko Says:

    The report is quite specific in stating that it is a UK study, done in the context of the fee rise in England (which also impacts on English students studying in other countries of the UK), but looking across the four countries of the UK. The study included universities in Scotland and Northern Ireland and Welsh students. The report states how even students paying no fees, or lower fees on the old regime, also have a consumerist ethos towards higher education. This is part of the media and political discourse surrounding higher education and shows students views about higher education are not necessarily shaped by the direct fees they are paying.

    • The very first sentence runs as follows: “recent policy developments in UK higher education have enacted systemic change in the sector.’ Clearly that is not so – it is England, not the UK.

  4. ronnie munck Says:

    It seems right to decouple student attitudes from fees. We have for decades been saying Students are not what they were, meaning they seemed not to have the critical enquirying minds we had, or thought we had.

    We might try to look at the pressures on lecturers since, say, Thatcherism emerged on the scene, in terms of RAE, REF, TQA etc etc and then maybe see how they have also become instrumental.

    Why would we be surprised that students maeasure the value of the education they receive in terms of contact hours. Lectueres value hours spent on making the REF grade more than those spent mentoring students.

    We need a holistic view and a holistic transformative response!!

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Ronnie, while I agree that we need a ‘holistic view and a holistic transformative response’ (my own comment above stressing the need to consider HE in its societal context is in line with this, and with the thinking of American philosopher Michael Sandel – see his piece ‘What Isn’t for Sale?’
      I would disagree that “Lectures value hours spent on making the REF grade more than those spent mentoring students”, that is a sweeping generalization which does not reflect the complexities of the situation. Many lecturers, just like myself, are REF active but *also* value the time spent mentoring/teaching and are critical of the exorbitant premium placed on the research grant application process which alienates the researcher from any teaching activity, thus depriving students of valuable insight.

      • ronnie munck Says:

        Anna you are of course right. Mine was a provocative way of putting it. But we do seem to agree that we cannot just look at students on their own and need to see the big changes in the life of the lecturer which are bound to have had an impact on students. Thanks!

  5. Eddie Says:

    OMG, some is not happy and lashing out some one is left out of the group which prepared this report!! Considering Scottish major universities like Edinburgh, St Andrews and Aberdeen depend so much on fee-paying English students, and hence the latter’s consumerism, this article is a bit of frustrated (being left out) hot air!

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