Reassuringly expensive

Fees needn't mean the end of scholarly values, argues Felipe Fernández-Armesto. For his US students, putting a price on learning just makes it more desirable

August 30, 2012

The nuns fill me with fear as, with brisk ferocity, they wash and press my laundry at the University of Notre Dame. They charge $2 a shirt, but I cannot think of these holy virgins as businesswomen, whom I might reasonably upbraid for using too much starch or too little, or breaking my buttons, or wrinkling my cuffs. I come to them as a supplicant and go away happy if I escape their disapproval.

For different reasons, my English doctor, too, makes me meekly submissive. I pay for a consultation; but the fee gives me no confidence to challenge her commands. Yes, I will diet. Yes, I will take my medicine. Yes, I will undergo any surgical humiliation she prescribes. Then there are lawyers. I will do anything to avoid consulting lawyers but, if I were to do so, I am sure I should defer to them in direct proportion to their no doubt outrageous bills. In these encounters, as in the classroom, the laws of economics do not apply. Market forces yield to hierarchies of charisma and knowledge. The customer is a client and the piper is paid to call the tune.

In my classroom, at my extremely expensive university, my students, according to the jargon we all have to endure nowadays, are consumers. But are they customers or clients? Have I the power of my despotic doctor or religious laundresses? Or am I at the mercy of consumers' complaints, customers' grievances, market discipline and commercial constraints?

Academics at UK institutions have many good reasons to deplore the intrusion of serious fees into their relationships with their students. Money sullies service. It turns rights into privileges. It focuses minds on calculable value instead of incalculable values. Evidence is already accumulating that British students cheat more, plagiarise more and complain more as fees rise. Flight from the humanities is forecast. Students henceforth, according to some doomsayers, will think they are buying a degree. Parents will crack the whip as they crackle the banknotes. David Willetts, the universities minister, anticipates that students will be "bloody well consumerist" in the face of new fees. Times Higher Education reports that Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, expects students "to become more demanding". The University of Exeter is worried about whether parents will think its programmes are "good value" for £9,000 a year.

The US experience should help Britons prepare for life after free and low-fee education. Only a handful of US institutions charge no fees - the Service academies, which are genuine universities with a mission to transcend mere professional training, and a few marginal colleges with a historic vocation of service to the poor. At all the others, rising price tags have hugely outstripped inflation in recent years: budget cuts in some state-maintained universities have led to hikes of up to 40 per cent over the past three years. On average, a US student spends about 50 per cent more per annum on university education than a UK counterpart, even at the new level of UK fees. And most degree courses take a minimum of four years.

High costs do not seem to deter participation: well over half the population of the US still has some experience of further or higher education. Graduation rates are poor, but that may reflect the unrealistic ambitions of students rather than the costs of education, and nearly a third of adults have degrees. Most US universities are experiencing a shift in student applications towards supposedly marketable qualifications in utilitarian subjects - but that is a global trend, more probably attributable to hard times than high fees.

There are, however, plenty of pesky self-designated consumers in US higher education - not so much among the students as among their Moms and Pops, who have to pick up the tab. I have never had to deal directly with parents at Notre Dame, but in my previous job, at Tufts University, Massachusetts, I was frequently surprised by parents who rang me up, or called at my room during our periodic parents' visiting days.

Typically, they just wanted to talk - perhaps to be reassured that junior was working hard enough, or to ask about subjects I might offer in future, or to curry favour with me by professing interest in the courses their children were doing. Infrequently they indulged in special pleading on their offspring's behalf: begging forgiveness for a wayward student, or craving indulgence for someone who had missed classes because of family crises or ill health.

I only once in the US had a parent who was a nuisance: he wanted the university to relax the rules so that his son could complete my course after the expiry of the usual time limit. I had no power to satisfy him and no influence to exert; yet he seemed incapable of accepting the facts. His was an aberrant case, which I could not conscientiously blame on the US system: I had been plagued even more by the intrusive and tiresome mother of one of my students while I was still working in Britain. Some parents have an irrational notion of parental duty, and one must live with the consequences, whatever side of the ocean one is on. On balance, I found contact with parents helpful when I was at Tufts. It is always good to know what one's students are up against in terms of pushiness, frustration, smother-love or pressure at home. The effects on most students, as far as I can judge, are overwhelmingly positive: parents demand value for money from their children even more than from teachers.

Whether because parents harangue them, or because of alarm at watching their inheritances leach into my pocket, my students seem to have a strong sense of how deeply invested they are in their own schooling. The effects of high fees on classroom atmosphere can only be judged impressionistically. But my experience suggests that the apparently exorbitant charges made by US universities do not shift power from teachers to students or warp academic ideals. My pupils at Notre Dame pay some of the highest fees in the world: $43,000 (£,400) a year at the ticket price (although the university applies means tests and subsidises three-quarters of the students out of endowed funds). They are eager to get value. So they listen attentively, work hard, participate avidly and try to follow advice. They are so much more fun than the students I had, free of fees, in Britain, who lounged back insouciantly, confident that their idleness cost them nothing, and defied me to teach them.

The customer in my US classroom does not expect to be right: on the contrary, students tend to be too deferential to my views. I have to chide them into disagreement and provoke them into dissent. I have to wait until they write their anonymous end-of-term "feedback" to learn that some of them think I mark too stringently or chide too savagely. Their relationship with me is distressingly like mine with my doctor or my nuns: students hesitate, without explicit encouragement, to question my judgement and tend to assume that because my services cost so much I must be unchallengeably well-qualified.

Not because they pay fees, but because they are ravenously keen on learning, US students gobble up time. They call at my room, sometimes avowedly for "a chat", sometimes to get reassurance about their work. If I thought they were buying the time I spend with them I should not enjoy it as I do. I feel uneasy when the more insistent seem to steal an advantage over modest, reticent or bashful classmates. But on the whole I feel grateful for students' willingness to impose. It shows their confidence in my help and their belief in my good nature. It gives me an opportunity to do a better job. Undemanding students worry me, because they give me relatively less chance to help them improve.

In one context, fees can have a poisonous effect: when things go wrong. A student who pays nothing to fail has fewer grounds for dissatisfaction than one who has paid $200,000. Fee-fuelled grievances are worse than those that come free of charge. One strategy for heading off the dissatisfied customer is clarifying the contract. Teachers at fee-paying universities have a duty and burden to be clear and explicit about what students must do to succeed. Our US syllabuses would, I suspect, astonish some of my colleagues in the UK by stating requirements one might reasonably take for granted - such as to comply with assignments, eschew plagiarism, respect scholarship, write accurately, attend regularly and think rationally.

I decline to incorporate formulaic injunctions to observe common courtesies, such as treating classmates equally irrespective of sex or race - but, especially in state-funded universities, such clauses abound. The syllabus is part of the contract and must anticipate every possible disaster. But syllabus-mongering, although tiresome, is not incompatible with education: on the contrary, students work best with clear objectives and unambiguous guidance.

The best way to avoid dissatisfied customers is to be honest. The most basic form of honesty requires the university, not the student, to forgo commercial perspectives. Successful fee-charging universities admit only academically qualified candidates in the first place, irrespective of the importunities of governments or the exigencies of economics. In Britain, students whose files are strewn with complaints, or whose agonies of failure are protracted by overexploited grievance procedures, are usually weak students who would have been best served by benign exclusion in rigorous admissions tests. Fees do not produce failures (although they may exacerbate feelings): undiscriminating admissions do.

A university should be a society of the like-minded, who will get on together if they all value learning. Teachers, therefore, need to be selected with uncompromising rigour. In universities staffed by people with a strong sense of vocation, who love their work and like their students, fulfilment will be frequent and resentment rare, irrespective of the level of fees. The strength of my colleagues' commitment to teaching has impressed me wherever I have worked in the US. We never make appointments on the strength of candidates' research alone, without putting that commitment to the test. If they want to survive in the era of high fees, UK universities should adopt the same policy.

Stewardship is critical when it comes to handling fees. At Notre Dame, families seem to pay our charges willingly as long as we use the money well. My British friends never visit without expressing envy at the perfection of the plant, the maintenance of the estate, the excellence of the amenities, the comfortable and companionable accommodation for students, the lovingly served food, the depth of pastoral care, the helpfulness of administrative staff, and the responsiveness of the university to the needs and priorities of teachers and researchers, students and workers. In short, for those who can afford the fees, they seem well spent. That is why students love the place and alumni go on donating throughout their lives, until they have paid their fees many times over. In spite of charging low fees or none, no British university in modern times has managed to create the same culture of love, the same sense of identity, the same spirit of generosity.

Once the principle of free higher education has been breached, there is no virtue in pitching prices too low to deliver excellence. Beyond a certain threshold of quality, objects become more desirable the more they cost. People value cars, jewels and fashions, partly for their price. If my doctor charged less, I should probably attach less value to her counsel. If lawyers came cheaply, no one would think them worth employing. Management consultants often recommend price hikes as ways of shifting undervalued goods. Beer is marketed as "reassuringly expensive". No rare treasure comes cheap. Cultures of conspicuous consumption despise bargains. My students listen to me not because I am always right, but because they know that my knowledge, such as it is, is highly paid. The last lesson of the US system for UK universities is: if you are going to charge fees, be sure to set them high enough.

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