"I've been too exposed to reading [about] certain things that are happening. I can't just shut my eyes and go back to normality. I'd feel like I am betraying myself and what I think and what I believe in." So says Martin, a social science student from a lower-status English university, and one of hundreds of students on sociology degrees who helped us with our research by telling us of their experiences of studying.
Our three-year project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, involved four universities. Two have consistently ranked in the top third of UK league tables - labelled "prestige" and "selective". The other two - labelled "community" and "diversity" - ranked in the bottom third. But we met students like Martin everywhere: students who valued being stretched by the effort required to understand their discipline, and thought that their "eyes had been opened" by the experience. This evidence of students' interest in university study as personal transformation runs counter to the depressing picture that is often painted of the modern student who wants to find the easiest route through a degree that offers the highest financial return.
Findings from our investigation pose two major challenges to current policies.
The first challenge is to policies that are likely to perpetuate misconceptions about so-called "good" and "bad" universities, and that serve to deepen the inequities that flow from this divide.
Students at lower-status universities had considerably lower entry qualifications than those at higher-status universities. Yet the students from all the courses we examined developed disciplinary knowledge and benefited in the same ways from their university education. Also, there was evidence that students at lower-status universities were receiving, on some counts, a better education. When we asked students about the quality of teaching they received, it was reasonably high on all courses. But there was a significantly higher incidence of good teaching at the two lower-status universities.
University reputation is based largely on history, research achievement and wealth, rather than the quality of teaching offered. This is unfair. Students in our study knew that they were either advantaged or disadvantaged by the reputation of their university, but this had nothing to do with their experiences of studying there. Variable tuition fees are likely to reinforce the notion that poorer universities attracting poorer students are less good, while the continued use of league tables that ignore the "value added" and equalising effect of good teaching will reinforce these inequalities.
The second challenge concerns the requirement for universities to provide Key Information Sets so that students can make an "informed" choice about which university to apply for. From the perspective of the students we spoke to, the KIS is not fit for purpose because it does not provide information on the things that students saw as most important. The KIS presents an over-rationalised and school-like picture of university life: paying your money, going to lessons, doing your homework and getting a good job afterwards. Completely absent are indicators related to what our students valued most; that is, being encouraged to work hard, to understand disciplinary knowledge so that you are enlightened by being able to think more broadly about the world, and so that you can contribute to society in worthwhile ways.
These challenges suggest fundamental problems with the depiction of students as "consumers". The concept obscures the process of personal transformation by studying that is central to what the students we studied gained from higher education, whichever university they attended. It also reinforces public and policy perceptions of what counts as a "good" university. This perception is completely out of line with the examples of educational quality we found when we looked in depth at similar courses in universities with substantially different reputations. Compared with students' accounts, the idea of the student as "customer" offers a distorted and impoverished vision of what is involved and at stake in undergraduate study.