The customer has no right to be lazy

England’s loan system and high fees have fuelled students’ sense of entitlement but not of responsibility, says Beth Guilding 

January 17, 2019
money-hammock
Source: Michael Parkin

Recently, I asked a friend’s 11-year-old daughter whether she thinks she’ll go to university.

“Mum says I have to, because she doesn’t want me to be lazy,” she replied. “But I’m going to do something easy, like textiles or art.”

As an academic, I was surprised to find myself responding that it might be best for her not to go until she is sure that she really cares about her degree. After all, should we not all be reinforcing the rhetoric that university is available to everyone? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should come. At least, not if it is being understood as an alternative to doing nothing.

The conversation reminded me of a recent undergraduate seminar I led. Only two out of 18 students had read that week’s set texts, and 13 were not even sure what the readings had been – in spite of my reminder the previous week and the clear statement on the online learning portal.

I turned to the whiteboard and wrote in large, red figures: 27,750.

“What’s that number?” I asked them.

Silence.

“That is how much your fees will come to over the next three years – and that’s in addition to any maintenance loans you might be receiving.”

More silence.

“Why, for goodness’ sake, aren’t you doing the work?”

“But we don’t pay that back until we’re earning, like, over £21,000 a year,” one student replied.

I was flabbergasted.

Of course, student apathy has always been an issue in Western educational settings: if we “impose” education on young people, some will always rebel. But university is not school. Attendance is a choice. And while it might have been reasonable enough in the days of free tuition and maintenance grants for students to treat the English university experience as something of a holiday, the choice to attend must now be made with very serious consideration of what paying back £27,750 (plus maintenance loans) actually involves.

To frame this differently: ask any adult with a host of financial commitments to spend £9,000 a year on something and they will likely take a great deal of time to consider whether doing so is viable and whether they really want to do it. The fact that English universities have seen such a decline in applications from mature students since fees were tripled in 2012 strongly suggests that, when it comes to degrees, many people with commitments take the view that they are no longer affordable.

At the best, high fees result in meticulous students who, not unreasonably, demand more resources to support them. But in all the talk about consumerism, what no one seems to have noticed is that the vast majority of students in systems with government loan schemes are not actually customers since they do not directly pay their fees.

Instead, repayment is deferred to an as-yet nebulous professional future. This makes it extremely difficult to establish any concrete link between education and “value for money”. And, in the all-too-common worst-case scenario, it allows students to adopt the identity of consumers without taking responsibility for their purchase in the way that they would if they were paying for it out of their own hard-earned savings. They fail to engage with their programmes while still claiming that since they are paying a high fee, it is up to us, the academics, to “provide” them with their degrees.

From this perspective, a rather large blind spot concerning what it is that English students are being told in the run-up to university becomes apparent. At a recent training day, I discovered that institutions across the country are visiting primary schools to encourage children to attend university after sixth form. When I asked what the children were being told about fees, the outreach coordinator replied breezily that since all first-degree students are entitled to the loan, little focus is put on the fee.

“After all,” he said, “we don’t want to put them off!”

No, we don’t. But we are doing neither young people nor universities any favours by normalising the idea that from the September of your 18th year, it is OK to get into tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of debt just to avoid parental accusations of laziness.

Perhaps the impending Augar review of university funding in England, which is expected to report shortly, will – as the leaks suggest – recommend a significant reduction in tuition fees. But, either way, we need to emphasise that young people should attend university only if they are ready to work hard at something they are passionate about. That would no doubt result in fewer admissions targets being met. But we might well question the virtue of meeting such targets if doing so involves filling seats with students who feel that paying significant fees should exempt them from hard work – to the pedagogical detriment of those who want to squeeze every ounce of learning out of their degrees at least in part because they’re paying so much.

Beth Guilding is an academic and writer based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Students might think like customers but they have no right to be lazy

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Reader's comments (3)

Bravo! Well said! I hope that the mandarins at OfS and DfE take notice. The current fatuous notion that universities are somehow responsible for the future careers and earnings of their graduates is another indicator of the stupidity of the 'student is always right' mantra that is now dominating HE. Where has the obligation for personal responsibility gone?
“That is how much your fees will come to over the next three years – and that’s in addition to any maintenance loans you might be receiving...Why, for goodness’ sake, aren’t you doing the work?” With this kind of attitude prevalent among undergraduates (average attendance in my university is slightly below 50%), we are pressured to have them graduate with 'good' degrees. And we wonder why there is rampant grade inflation...?
"They fail to engage with their programmes while still claiming that since they are paying a high fee, it is up to us, the academics, to “provide” them with their degrees." The passive attitude of students the writer notes is (as many of us will attest) increasingly widespread. It seems that struggling to understand – and being willing to struggle to understand – how to resolve weaknesses brought to their attention is now entirely incidental to what is now the primary goal: getting a good mark. In light of the phenomena of grade inflation – in which the attainment of a ‘good’ degree has become uncoupled from the possession of the knowledge, skills or expertise such qualifications used to represent – it should come as no surprise that a survey of more than 6,000 employers across the country found that 81% of manufacturers and 70% of service sector firms report difficulties finding adequately qualified staff. While the government has threatened to clamp down on the trend, as universities now depend on the number of customers they can attract, and as the number of firsts awarded helps universities to rise up the league tables – any serious attempt to reign in grade inflation would undermine their marketing strategies (“Come and study here because our students do so well”).

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