Monday, 19 July 2010

Are students customers?

It's very tempting to dive into the growing debate on UK student funding. In the last few days we've had a speech by Vince Cable advocating a graduate tax, lots of critical commentary about that idea, more calls for higher and more flexible fees, and then a remark by the Scottish education secretary, Michael Russell, firmly rejecting the reintroduction of fees in Scottish universities and asserting that a 'uniquely Scottish solution' will be found to our university funding problems - whatever that might mean. For now, though, I'll resist the temptation to comment on these important funding issues, not least because there will be plenty of opportunity later in the year when Lord Browne's review publishes its report.

Instead, I'll set down a few thoughts on another quite tricky issue, the idea of the student as a 'customer'.

In my long distant student days this would have seemed a wholly ridiculous idea, for back then a university education was still only available for a relatively small subset of the relevant age group - well under 10% - and for most of us it was regarded as a massive privilege, an opportunity to build new lives for ourselves. We certainly never gave a thought to any sort of 'customer rights', and mostly we arrived at university knowing that it was down to us to make the best of it, to get everything out of it that we could. We quickly discovered that there were good and bad lecturers, good and bad tutors, and few firm constraints on what we did, how hard we worked. In some ways the lack of formal structure was both frightening, because it was so different from the excessively structured routine of secondary school, and liberating, because it enabled us to organise our work very flexibly around a huge range of other activities that we could choose to pursue. A great time.

Nowadays, of course, much has changed, not least the scale of the university system, with over 40% of young people going on to further study, mostly aiming for university degrees. At the same time, especially in England, fees have become an accepted (albeit not necessarily liked very much) part of the system. And taken together, these two changes are giving rise to an increasing emphasis on the student as a customer. So what does this mean, exactly, and how far should it be welcomed?

The bigger scale of the university system means that our students are drawn from a wider range of abilities than used to be the case, and many of the academically weaker ones (and actually, not only these) need more support from their respective universities in order to navigate a path through to successful completion of their degrees. They need both academic guidance and pastoral support of various kinds, and it seems to me entirely right that most institutions have adapted over the years to provide such support.

The charging of fees, however, seems to me to make students think more like customers in a shop, seeing themselves as purchasers of a 'product'. This then gives rise to pressures for change that are, I think, not so desirable as compared to the more general student support discussed in the previous paragraph.

For in my view, offering a degree programme is not really the same thing as selling any other product, such as a packet of biscuits. Most importantly, in higher education there is a huge information asymmetry between buyer (student) and seller (university) which is not present in the case of the packet of biscuits just mentioned - with most everyday products, buyer and seller know pretty well what the product is, and what its quality ought to be, competition normally wiping out producers of inferior products. The student, in contrast, cannot know what a degree programme is going to be like, and what it might do for them, until he/she has experienced it; and there is at present only quite constrained competition between different universities in the UK.

Now, to some extent the information asymmetry can be overcome by the publication of league tables and various comparative reports on universities that can be used to help future students make their choices of where to go, what to study. These are analogous to the consumer reports that often help us choose household goods, and they can be quite helpful. However, there are also dangers in this approach, since league tables can effectively pressurise institutions to do things that are not necessarily all that great in terms of the educational process we are engaged in. Let me give a few examples.

(1) One indicator often published is the share of 'good' degrees awarded, i.e. the share of first class and upper second class degrees. There's just a possibility, I say no more than that, that the very use of such an indicator might encourage institutions to ease upwards over time the share of such degrees they award.

(2) Some comparative reports mention typical student 'contact hours' each week, i.e. lectures, tutorials and other types of contact, and some universities have come in for criticism when their contact hours in certain courses have been deemed (by the media, often) to be 'too low'. At times, commentary on this issue seems to imply that students are not learning anything unless they are actually being taught, which is surely nonsense. After all, students are supposed to do a great deal of independent study for most degrees, a crucial detail too often forgotten by the media (and others).

(3) Similarly, universities are increasingly pressed to provide rapid feedback on student assignments, and to provide copious amounts of course material either on line or in the form of printed handouts. This is fine, and I certainly support the provision of good, timely feedback. But I have been surprised in recent years when quite large numbers of students have not troubled to collect their marked essays from me - so although I would have provided comments, they never benefited the intended recipients! Course material, too, is no bad thing, though I do think many more students could usefully learn how to take good lecture notes and take more control of their own learning. Two points follow: First, we are there as academic staff to provide needed support to our students, most definitely not to 'spoon feed' them; and second, the educational process is a two-way street, with responsibilities on both sides. So I would argue that students are not customers in the commonly understood sense of that term; rather, they are participants - indeed partners - in a shared educational experience. That's something very different.

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