Leader: Customer care is not surrender

November 11, 2005

At last, we begin to move from the realms of speculation about the impact of top-up fees to some hard facts. It would be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from today's applications statistics - Oxbridge and the fields of medicine, dentistry and veterinary science are by no means representative of UK higher education as a whole - but they will come as a relief to ministers and other universities. We will have to wait to discover whether the social backgrounds of the applicants differ from previous years, but the lengthy medical and veterinary degrees are a good first test of the overall effect of higher fees. The changes are barely measurable.

The figures have been published just as debate on the consequences of raising fees was resurfacing. Cherie Blair was interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as criticising her husband, Tony Blair's, policy this week and the subject provides one of the few clear differences between the two Tory leadership contenders. Both Ms Booth and David Davis obviously feel strongly as past beneficiaries of full grants, but neither has explained how a 1970s system would work for 21st-century mass higher education. It is difficult to imagine a government of either main party trying to turn back the clock after the next election.

Of more immediate relevance to those who work in universities and colleges is the likely effect on their relationship with students. To many, Sir Howard Newby was stating the obvious in his address to the Higher Education Funding Council for England when he warned delegates that students would have to be treated as "clients" when they were paying £3,000 a year. But he will have known the sensitivity that surrounds the notion of a customer-provider relationship. Higher education has always involved a partnership between the academic and the student, in which the academic plays the guiding role. The trick for universities in the top-up fees era will be to preserve that relationship while satisfying students' natural desire for improved services.

There will be pressure for more contact hours in subjects that currently stress the importance of solitary study over spoon-feeding. Legitimate questions will be asked about the size of seminar groups and the availability of academic support, as well as the standard of facilities.

But that does not mean that academics should be any less rigorous in their own demands of students. It would be ironic if increased charges resulted in a poorer education.

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