“Overall, we need to take a step away from presenting higher education mainly as a financial issue: funding, fees, pay.” These are the words of Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, on his A University Blog.
“These are important, but they are not the essence. Right now a dispassionate observer might not recognise this, and that is a problem,” he writes.
His blog post discusses a report commissioned by the Quality Assurance Agency, which Professor von Prondzynski says highlights how the new fees regime in England has created a consumerist attitude among students.
The report, Shifting Concepts of Value in UK Higher Education?, states: “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, it continues, is 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,” Professor von Prondzynski writes. “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.
“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.” However, whether that becomes a “consumerist ethos” or not depends on how universities “present the experience”.
He adds: “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.”
A number of people have commented on the blog, including Ronnie Munck, director of civic engagement at Dublin City University.
“Why would we be surprised that students measure the value of the education they receive in terms of contact hours?” he asks. “Lecturers value hours spent on making the [research excellence framework] grade more than those spent mentoring students.”
However, Anna Notaro, programme leader in contemporary media theory at the University of Dundee, disagrees with Professor Munck’s claim. “That is a sweeping generalization which does not reflect the complexities of the situation,” she says.
“Many lecturers, just like myself, are REF active but also value the time spent mentoring/teaching and are critical of the exorbitant premium placed on the research grant application process which alienates the researcher from any teaching activity, thus depriving students of valuable insight.”
Meanwhile, a reader calling themselves “V. H.” questions whether higher fees will ultimately mean that “a goodly percentage [of students] will decide to [forgo] the joys of philosophy/Classics, history or the languages” and go direct to “whatever they are going to attempt making a living [from]”.
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