Don't ditch 'trust' for 'service' 1

January 10, 2003

I am interested in the differing views of the function of higher education (Soapbox, THES , December 20/; Letters, THES , January 3). I studied for my bachelor and master of arts degrees as a mature student with a family. My daughter entered higher education after taking A levels and my son after 12 years in industry.

Although our experiences differed, our view of higher education is almost the same as that defined by my first tutor. A first degree helps you acquire a basic intellectual toolkit, and subsequent education or training helps you achieve your vocation.

To achieve both, students put their efforts into the care of teachers. This is a not a commercial transaction but a matter of mutual trust. A student is seldom in a position to assess the adequacy or appropriateness of the content or related standards of the goods - the discipline or subject - they have signed for, or the modes of delivery.

The student-tutor relationship is further complicated by the trend towards "vocational" degrees and widening participation. The former require that the intellectual toolkit and vocational applications are put across as a bolt-on unit, such as key skills, or integrated into the first degree. The latter means courses have to cater for differing learning skills.

Branding higher education a "service industry" trivialises the ethical, moral and professional nature of the "customer-provider" relationship. It also opens the door to the service becoming a "you-get-what-you-pay-for" operation, wherein the terms of the agreement may become more important than the standards of the content.

Margaret Rayner
High Wycombe

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