Expectation inflation: as demands rise, ability to meet them declines

Browne's consumer revolution will drive a wedge between scholars and students, with bleak consequences for all, argues David Beer

January 20, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

It was only a matter of time. In the wake of funding cuts and the confirmation of new tuition fee structures, the attention of students and parents is already beginning to shift away from the coalition government and towards the universities themselves.

We have already witnessed the lobbying of universities by students who wish to see individual institutions set their fees at the lower end of the range. There has been some suggestion that protest action will be increasingly directed at universities as they approach the deadline for deciding upon their fee levels for the 2012 intake. The issue is almost certain to trigger more targeted questions about the "value for money" that we provide and the type of services that we offer.

According to the Browne Review, the very purpose of creating a market in higher education, other than to allow for funding to be cut from courses not considered a priority, is to force up quality and to put power in the hands of the students. The students, it repeatedly reminds us, will decide where the money goes.

The review is very clear in its desire to change the way that students engage with universities both at the point of entry and during their course of study. The system will have built-in metric evaluations of courses designed to measure particular types of success or failure; these metrics will in turn be used to inform the next generation of students about the different options available to them.

Clearly this will have many possible outcomes; my concern, however, is with the challenges we will encounter with regard to student expectations as they continue to be reshaped by the next stage in the implementation of tuition fees.

It is worth noting that the new system is actually being designed to drive up these expectations. Further, the Browne Review and the political rhetoric associated with it indicate a desire for students to become active consumers who question what they are getting in return for their significantly increased fees (whatever the realities are for the funding we receive per student).

In terms of teaching, I'm afraid that it is hard to think of the outlook as being anything other than a little bleak. It seems likely, unfortunately, that a greater schism will form between students and lecturers.

I'm worried that we may experience an increasing "them and us" sentiment creeping into our interactions with students. The ruptures and tensions that higher fees will create will make it far harder for us to use less formal mechanisms for getting to grips with what students hope to gain from studying at university.

So, not only will student expectations and demands increase, but at the same time they will also become more difficult for us to understand.

In addition, there will be continual pressure to match student expectations so as to achieve sufficiently high levels of satisfaction, which in turn will feed into the increasingly important metric measures used in the student recruitment process.

Add to this the likely questions that will accompany matters such as contact hours, class sizes, module content, access to one-to-one support, feedback on assignments, attendance, library provision, assessment formats, lecture resources, seminar preparation and reading accessibility, and it is clear there are going to be some difficult judgements for us to make.

Whatever we do, it will be increasingly hard to keep up with student expectations in the new landscape.

We have some choices. We can continue to make incremental changes and improve our provision (professional pride will motivate us to do so). But the changing perceptions of students and the increased measurement of our degree courses will mean that such measures may only partially address our modified circumstances.

We need to think hard about the coming problems posed by student expectation so as to create some measured responses, otherwise we are going to be trapped in a constant chase to create satisfaction that will be difficult, and maybe even personally and professionally damaging, to maintain. In some instances we will not be in a position to give students what they want; in others we will feel that it is not appropriate or right to satisfy their demands; in others still we will want to satisfy their expectations but will be unclear what they are.

All this will create new tensions and challenges that we must anticipate and plan for. We are about to see an escalation in student expectation ramped up to a magnitude that is almost impossible to imagine or comprehend, a magnitude far beyond that which might already have created challenges for us to resolve.

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