You pays yer money...

September 29, 2006

Is higher education being killed by a commercial culture and a consumer mentality? As the first students to pay top-up fees start university this week, academics give their views of the learning experience.

And if their contributions anger or inspire you, consider taking part in our satire competition. See details below

The market's steep toll

Colin Bundy was director of the School of Oriental and African Studies until earlier this year

"The customer," observed the renowned retailer H. Gordon Selfridge in the 1930s, "is always right." Starting from this important precept, here is a brief reminder of how to serve customers:

* Do not contradict customers nor challenge their decisions

* Do not interrogate their preferences nor criticise what they have chosen

* Do not suggest alternatives, especially if these require more effort.

The student, let me venture, is at university to study. That is, to acquire knowledge and to learn how to do so, to develop the requisite skills to become competent (and confident) in a discipline, and then to demonstrate that competence by qualifying with a degree.

If this is why students attend universities, here is a brief reminder of how best to serve these aims:

* Challenge their assumptions and extend the decisions available to them

* Interrogate their findings and formulations, and subject these to constructive criticism

* Propose a range of alternative explanations or methods, especially if these require more effort.

It takes only a moment's critical reflection to realise that the metaphor of students as customers is as fatuous as it is facile. And it requires only a brief dig in the archaeology of ideas to establish that the notion dates from the early 1980s, when US colleges and universities borrowed from business an enthusiasm for total quality management. TQM insisted on quality and focused on identifying and serving the customers of any organisation.

In the early 1990s, British higher education was penetrated by the language and logic of the market, specifically in the form of new public management.

Vice-chancellors and council chairs lay back and thought of excellence.

They embraced strategic planning, mission statements, flatter structures, line managers and cost units; their balance sheets were soaked in third-stream income. In this steamy encounter, zero-based budgets trumped Senate votes; the bottom line was tops.

Within this broader discursive shift, students were constructed anew. They are no longer recipients of social benefit but purchasers of an increasingly expensive product. They are choice-conscious, rationally autonomous consumers; they are sharp shoppers on the lookout for the best value for their fees. Higher education is the new Ikea - no, the new eBay.

Does this metaphoric transfer - this shift of semiotic baggage from the corporation to campus - matter? Well, it does. As the educationist Ron Barnett has argued, viewing students as customers affects their intellectual experience. In the enterprise university, the student is no longer novice-scholar but consumer with individualised status and rights.

By accepting the identity of consumers, students "neglect their own responsibilities in contributing to the interactive and even astringent pedagogical exchanges characteristic of a university". If they buy into the rhetoric of the enterprise university, students come to expect courses of "excellent" quality to be "delivered" to them. The educational encounter is diminished. Conversation becomes monologue, provider to recipient. Learning is reduced to assimilation rather than being a personally authored learning.

This does not mean that universities should stop paying attention to issues such as pedagogy and curriculum - how and what students learn - or that they should shirk their pastoral role. They must continue, as they always have, to care for the accommodation, social, leisure and personal needs of every generation of students.

But they should not dress this up as customer service. The student-as-customer metaphor carries a steep price. It poses the risk that students are no longer seen as active participants in the hard slog of teaching and learning but as consumers, acquisitive but passive browsers in the knowledge bazaar.

If we must borrow from the marketplace, let us not shortchange our students, any more than a decent shopkeeper would shortchange customers.

Today's students get better deal

Nicholas Barr is professor of public economics at the London School of Economics

Students want to grow and flourish and learn, and that is also what academics want. Seeing the relationship as a sort of streetbarrow model is the wrong model. I am relaxed about the student-as-customer model as I have lived through it. Thatcherism removed the tax subsidy for overseas students, which was a big problem for the London School of Economics because a third of our students were from overseas. Since then, international competition has increased.

Students bring big cheques, and we need to look after them better as a result. Giving students a bigger voice improves the deal they get. I honestly think that my colleagues want more than just an easy life.

Most enjoy having active students. I think students will rightly put pressure on universities to deliver what they ought to be delivering, such as essays that are commented on seriously and returned quickly. Students deserve this.

Students have asked me to spoon-feed them, to give them model answers. I say "no" because they will just regurgitate information and this approach does not provide them with the intellectual training they need. If you give a good reason and say "it will not help you", they understand.

As for the fear that students will demand that they do not fail, I think students as customers will create additional pressure for an industrial-grade bomb-proof marking system that ensures work is marked with exam numbers and not with a student's name on it, that it is double marked and that the marking process is very seriously organised. The concept of students as customers will create incentives to tighten procedures even more.

One of the things I like about the top-up fee reforms is that students are now treated as adults. Having to rely on parental contributions has forced students to be responsible to their parents. The option of a loan treats them like young adults. But it is not the new higher education finance package that is behind the student-as-customer idea.

When I was an undergraduate, getting a degree did not matter. Students did not care that much about getting a 2.1. Today students are more serious about their studies; they recognise the need to achieve a good exam result to get a good job. The pressure on teachers with regards to this long predates tuition fees. Students are bright. In the old days, they recognised that a degree was not fundamentally important. Now it is, and they have responded in a predictable way. They take their degree more seriously. Their time division is tilted more towards the library than the bar.

Technological advances mean we need highly skilled people; so we need more higher education. The expansion of universities cannot be entirely financed by the taxpayer. Changes in the world cause students to take their studies more seriously, as do changes in their finances that are spurred by world events. They are both the consequences of technological drivers.

Confine customers to sofa

Caroline Gatrell is a teaching fellow at the School of Management, Lancaster University

It is inappropriate to position students as "customers". As well as providing academic support, faculty will assess student performance, and degrees will be awarded only to students who meet academic requirements - they cannot be purchased, as the term "customer" implies. As for students, while they study to earn their degree, they are members of a university; this affords them certain rights to which customers would not be entitled - for example, the right to influence policy through the student union. The term "customer" obfuscates the subtlety of the relationship between students and their university and is beneficial to neither party. It better befits a purely commercial transaction, such as the purchase of a sofa.

Job prospects top the agenda

John McCarthy is director of marketing, recruitment and external relations, Liverpool Hope University

Not so long ago, questions at open days revolved around course content, student accommodation and facilities. Now the questions are about finance, scholarships and employment prospects. Earlier this year, a father approached me at our open day. He said: "My daughter wants to study English and politics. What job prospects does she have, and how much can she expect to earn? I want to do a cost-benefit analysis of her going to university." A cost-benefit analysis? This is the language of Sir Alan Sugar as he grills candidates on The Apprentice . Who says we are not dealing with customers?

Buy into active learning

Robert Eaglestone is senior lecturer in 20th-century literature, Royal Holloway, University of London

There are benefits to students thinking of themselves as customers. After all, caveat emptor might translate into students thinking critically about what we present to them rather than just writing it all down. Like discerning buyers, students might be persuaded to try to test out ideas: it might mean more active learning. Moreover, window-shopping leads to a great awareness of the range of a field of study and prevents simply investing in what seems easiest. And, of course, there is always the attraction of the hidden little shop, or field of inquiry, full of gems that the crowd has not yet discovered and is not in the "shopping guidebooks".

Partners, not purchasers

Patrick Johnson works in the careers service, Manchester University

It is tempting to think of students as customers, but I am not sure that this is or will be the case for those who engage with university careers services. The relationship between students and their careers services is based on the principle of partnership. Advice and guidance are not seen as products to be purchased. Successful personal progression and career transition is dependent on engaging in the process. Careers advisers seek to help students understand themselves, the opportunities available to them and how to manage the complex transition. Students should demand careers services of the highest quality, but they will need to take an active partnership-based approach rather than a passive consumer-based approach.

Shoppers or canny inquisitors?

Raphael Salkie is a lecturer in the School of Languages, University of Brighton

If students become customers, what are they buying from universities? A package of facts, theories, methods and skills - call it "knowledge". Shrewd customers do not buy any old rubbish: they shop around, comparing features, prices, quality and so on. Canny students will do the same, looking at the quality, reliability and evidence base for the knowledge we sell them and asking if it is up to date and good value for money. In other words, they will be critical, questioning, sceptical consumers of knowledge. Is that not how we want our students to be?

It is no sacrifice to Mammon

Ellis Cashmore is professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University. He teaches the "football culture" module that some have dubbed "Beckham studies"

In 1974, Gunnar Myrdal, author of An American Dilemma , brought distinction to Stockholm University when he ascended to the apogee of scholarly accomplishment, winning the Nobel prize for economics. Today, a university would probably prefer its top scholar to appear on The Simpsons .

Universities are open for business. And there is a market economy in higher education. Does this mean that education is becoming another commodity in a jam-packed consumer market? If so, what sector provides a parameter? Petrol? Demand is pretty elastic, and consumption rebounds even after price rises. Television? Since the 1990s, all the UK's terrestrial channels have suffered as viewers have turned to those digital channels that have marketed themselves resourcefully. The viewers are still there, but they are now dispersed. Will students spend their money like resentful but compliant motorists who see no alternative but to pay more money and maintain old habits, or will they act like capricious television viewers enticed by ingenious advertising?

If higher education transmutes into a service industry, it will attend not so much to needs as to the preferences and perhaps the quirks of the consumer. Customer-oriented businesses do not typically instruct high-handedly or push their clients towards deeper wisdom. They respond to existing demands or try to cultivate new ones.

You do not need a PhD in economics to know that markets rarely operate rationally, or we would all shop at Aldi rather than Tesco. Consumers act on emotion and buy products that appeal to their feelings.

Some universities are already global brands. Others are running TV commercials. It will not be long before celebrity alumni are recruited; although, in a sense, the in-house resources are universities' most valuable brand assets. Maybe Oxford University does not need Richard Dawkins for publicity, but less august institutions are looking to their more recognisable faces to do for them what Sarah Jessica Parker did for Gap, or Keira Knightly does for Chanel. Professors were once confined to ivory towers. Now an appearance on Five's World's Top 100 Cartoon Characters is as valuable as a journal article that can be counted in the research assessment exercise.

But after all, professors are supposed to profess, are they not? What good is a purveyor of knowledge who does not communicate? Today's media of communication are there to inform, not just entertain. Which is not to say entertainment cannot yield enlightenment. Anyway, we should remember how much of our lives are affected positively by the media. We might resent the meretricious type of media-borne culture with its obsession for vacuous celebrities. Yet we still rely on the same media for practically everything we know about the world.

Universities are not necessarily sacrificing themselves or their professors on the altar of Mammon by engaging with the same culture they analyse and criticise. In fact, it may be their only option: the market is an unremitting and often unkind deity.

Postgraduates pay the price

Alan Sked is a senior lecturer in international history at the LSE

My main concern with students as customers is with doctoral students. The LSE has no trouble attracting undergraduate or masters students, but occasionally we lose potential doctoral students because we have very little money to give them to come here. I know of three very bright Italians who wanted to pursue their PhDs here, but two gave up the idea and one went to Cambridge University. Funding will remain a problem at this level.

Otherwise, my own experience has been one of attracting too many students. Until last year, both the undergraduate courses I ran had to be capped; there were too many students wanting to do them. Last year, since capping was no longer allowed, I upgraded one to an MA course and found a teaching assistant capable of taking four classes (60 students) for the other. The LSE has a worldwide reputation and a predominately international student body. Fees are not a huge problem. There is an LSE hardship fund for poor students, and the scholarships office runs various grants and bursaries; but so far we do not seem to be facing any major customer relations problems.

Crazy competition makes losers

Patrick Ainley is professor of training and education at the School of Education and Training, Greenwich University

First further education, then higher education, now schools. All have been thrown into crazy competition with the same result - market-managed consolidation merges institutions, closes departments and teaching is intensified so more and more students get less and less. It is not only students who are dumbed down; academics have reacted to the end of free public service higher education with all the collegiality of a shoal of piranhas, chasing research funding for the few while pretending that if we all charge the same fee there is no market and the cap will not come off, so the elite can privatise themselves out of the system.

Sensible brand information

Robert Mighall is a senior consultant at university branding specialists Lloyd Northover and a former lecturer

A market dynamic has operated in higher education for some time. Students traded their academic "credit" for a product that matched their aspirations; they later traded this investment on the job market. Giving this a monetary value simply literalises it. The institutions that understand this and help students make informed choices about what they have to offer will thrive.

But students invest more than money when they "buy" a university brand; the brand they buy is the brand they become when they market themselves. Understanding this should ensure that educational quality is maintained, if not improved.

They must pay, we must deliver

Ben Bowling is professor of criminology and criminal justice and director of criminological studies, King's College London

I received a very good free undergraduate education; I always felt like I was being well treated as a student and received a high-quality education. My postgraduate experience was less good. I sometimes felt cross about this. Although I was paying, university staff often treated me as if I were less than human. Personally, I would prefer it if tertiary education were provided free of charge because, like secondary education, it should be seen as a right and also because it contributes to the economic wellbeing and cultural development of our society.

However, the reality now is that students are paying. Thus they have a right to expect a high-quality education and to be treated with respect. I have heard colleagues describe students as a sort of nuisance because "they expect you to read their work". Some of my colleagues (not at King's) are anxious about becoming student-centred because it will expose their lack of skills in teaching and supervision and general lack of interest in students.

In my view, we should welcome student evaluation of our courses, library provision and the quality of the student experience as consumers of education. The key to all of this, however, is that the Government properly fund its lecturers and the university sector as a whole to be able to deliver the world-class service our students deserve.

Campus satire

The Times Higher is launching a competition to find the best satirical essay about a new customer services department at a university. Send your entry - maximum length 2,000 words - to  by December 1. The winning essay will be published in the Christmas edition of The Times Higher .

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments