Are students learning partners or litigants with big sticks?

Consumer legislation will provide tools to ‘whack’ universities, Westminster Higher Education Forum hears

May 15, 2014

Source: T. Papi

Angry thirds: students might get heavy-handed ‘if they don’t get what they want’

University teaching could become more risk-averse because academics fear being “whacked” by students deploying a growing number of tools with which to “beat up” universities.

This was the warning delivered by Paul Greatrix, registrar of the University of Nottingham, at a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on competition in higher education on 6 May.

Dr Greatrix said he was “confused” by the approach of the National Union of Students to student empowerment. “On one hand, they rightly ask for students to be partners in and co-creators of education. But [their] enthusiasm for consumerist legislation – the idea that buying a degree is like buying something at Argos – seems to be quite at odds with that,” he said.

“My suspicion is we will end up with this bizarre duality where, on the one hand, we are expected to treat students as if they are equal partners in the academic enterprise during their studies but, around them, they have a panoply of protective measures which they will deploy on a highly selective basis if they don’t get what they want.”

He said this would amount to swinging from a position where “we are arguably not fully providing the support and infrastructure students need” to “one where they are overloaded with tools to beat the universities up with”.

“The ultimate negative will be…less risk taking and more conservatism in the classroom because academics and people supporting students won’t want to get whacked by a regulatory stick,” he said.

Rachel Wenstone, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, said she disapproved of an “unhealthy attitude of consumerism” within universities. But she lamented that the lack of higher education legislation since tuition fees in England were tripled in England meant that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator lacked the powers it needed, leaving consumer legislation as the only other means of redress, provided students could afford a lawyer. She said universities should fund students’ unions to provide free independent advice to students.

Dr Greatrix was also concerned about the forthcoming review by the Competition and Markets Authority – which took over many of the functions of the Office of Fair Trading – of the extent of consumer law breaches by universities. He said he feared that the review, which reports next January, would not diminish the high degree of regulation to which higher education institutions are subject even though it is not obviously “of benefit to students or to the sector”.

Meanwhile, Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation and the former civil servant who was lead author on the 2010 Browne Review, said that the real rate of non-repayment of student loans may be less than half the 45 per cent the government has recently estimated.

That estimate was based on economic indicators gathered at the bottom of the economic cycle, he said. It also overestimated the government’s borrowing costs, which were currently very low and could be locked in at low levels by issuing very long-term bonds.

Mr Mian also doubted that the £21,000 loan repayment threshold will rise with average earnings, as the government has said it will.

“There are lots of tax thresholds that are supposed to be linked to average earnings but the lesson of history is that over time they never are,” he said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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