'Customer' students to call tune

November 11, 2005

A debate about the authority of academics in the era of top-up fees was ignited this week after England's top higher education official warned universities that they would be forced to treat students as customers and do much more to meet their demands.

Sir Howard Newby urged academics to adopt a more businesslike approach to fee-paying students - as the first admissions figures for 2006 revealed that demand for places at Oxbridge and the UK's medical schools had not been harmed by the decision to introduce variable fees next year.

"Students are consumers in other spheres of their life, which universities are going to have to match," Sir Howard, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said. "The idea that students should jolly well be grateful for what we do no longer works. We need to be responsive to students and not say we know what they ought to want."

The comments followed Sir Howard's most explicit and public statement on the issue to date, when he delivered a speech last week on the future of the sector at Hefce's annual conference. Sir Howard, who leaves his post next year, said that engaging with employers, community groups and students was one of the main issues facing vice-chancellors. He said: "Students will be individuals with whom all universities and colleges should have some lifelong affiliation. There is a need for universities and colleges to be much more client-facing and focused."

Sir Howard returns to academic life on February 1 when he becomes vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England. His comments attracted a mixed response from leading figures in the sector. Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, who witnessed the transition to fees in Australia, said: "Any fee structure is going to make students think of themselves as clients".

But he warned: "If you focus on making people more employable, then paradoxically you could lose the very thing that universities are wanted for - doing something more theoretical and research-based."

Sally Brown, Leeds Metropolitan University's pro vice-chancellor for assessment, learning and teaching, said: "Students can't just buy a great degree. It's a much more complex and multiple-levelled transaction than a simple purchaser-supplier one."

Ron Barnett, higher education professor at the Institute of Education, said a balance had to be struck between giving students what they wanted as consumers and stretching them intellectually.

Dennis Hayes, vice-president of lecturers' union Natfhe, said that students stood to lose the "transformative experience" of higher education if they were treated simply as clients. "This is the wrong way to go and academics should be brave enough to say so," he added.

The number of applications to study medicine, dentistry, veterinary sciences, and those to Oxford and Cambridge have fallen by 0.1 per cent compared with last year, figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show.

The figures also reveal a 15.1 per cent rise in applications from European Union countries outside the UK and a 5.4 per cent hike in other overseas applications.

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

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