Leader: Student power has to go with commitment

December 7, 2007

A few years ago, we reported on the case of the student who was awarded £200 by his university because he got stuck in a lift and missed a lecture. It wasn't an isolated incident - another student at another university was refunded £62.50 in course fees because of dissatisfaction "with the timing and quality of feedback". And yet another had her bus fare refunded after a lecture was cancelled without notice. Now it seems even coffee stains on essays invite censure. Students pay and students expect. Last year the number of complaints handled by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator rose by 44 per cent.

Nothing highlights the emergence of student power and the ambivalence surrounding it more than one particular Oxbridge nugget in our own poll on student experience. Cambridge and Oxford are second and fourth respectively. But they score poorly on the issue of providing a fair workload - students give both universities the lowest mark in that category. One might charitably conclude that students are revolting against an overtaxing workload that allows them little time for such essentials as part-time paid employment. Conversely, one might suppose that asking students to always approve of a regime that is demanding, rigorous and at some level pushes them to their intellectual limits is a little naive. It goes to the nub of the dilemma facing universities - it is not always possible to both maintain academic standards and please the student customer.

On the other hand, it is a foolish university that neglects its appeal to a student audience. In the US, mighty Harvard has had to take steps to restore its tarnished record on undergraduate teaching. In the UK, the London School of Economics feels it has to act after student complaints about the quality of teaching. Last week, the 1994 Group announced that the student voice would be central to teaching and learning.

Few would claim that students base their choice of university solely on the quality of its teaching and learning, which is why The Times Higher commissioned Opinionpanel Research to test a broad measure of the university experience. Prospective students want well-stocked libraries, up-to-date internet and sporting facilities, plentiful and good accommodation, an opportunity to work, relevant links with industry, helpful staff, a sense of community and a decent social life, as well as a good and creditable course.

This constant and insistent holding to account is, naturally, irksome to those who a decade or more ago did not have to bother with undergraduates demanding value for money. But in many respects - though not all - it is to be welcomed. It is easy to groan at pampered teenagers clamouring for en-suite rooms replete with wi-fi wonders. But if those same students insist that work submitted has relevant and detailed feedback, that marking procedures are robust, that the library stays open for longer and that they have at least some contact hours with the well-known experts who feature so prominently in the prospectus, surely an institution ultimately benefits.

The problem remains that treating students as a market would treat any other customer is bound to contaminate a crucial element of the educational encounter. Students do not buy a guaranteed outcome and wait passively for academics to deliver it. Baroness Deech's analogy with gym membership is a good one - the flabby won't get fit just by joining, they have to exercise. Students have a responsibility to subject their brain to a workout. Academics have a duty to interrogate, challenge, critique and, if warranted, fail the work of their pupils. If students are customers they are customers who enter into a compact - one that can be broken by them as well as by their university.

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