Posted tagged ‘consumers’

Do students embrace a ‘consumerist ethos’?

November 19, 2013

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.

Customers, consumers, traders? What are students?

October 22, 2009

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.