Fee foes smell blood

August 1, 1997

The proposal to charge students a proportion of the fees for their higher education is a profound mistake (THES, July 25).

It enshrines the notion of student as customer, and university as supplier. But customers are not normally expected to work, or be examined; they are certainly never failed. Many students will see certification as the product they are buying; if they fail, what did their fees buy? The pressure to never fail students will be increased.

It also raises a stakeholder question. Customers do not normally "own" the organisation from which they buy goods or services. Seeing students as customers puts them outside the institution, yet higher education institutions depend on the smooth transition of a sizeable body of students to research and lecturing posts, which is not dissimilar from promotion in other organisations.

A more useful metaphor is that of student as worker, and teacher as manager. If the main aim is to transform the learner's knowledge, understanding or competence, then it is the student that effects this transformation. Lecturers provide information, resources and guidance, just like good managers.

The customer (beneficiary) is society. All parts of society benefit from higher education. Many members benefit individually; for example, doctors and their patients benefit directly from doctors' learning.

If it can be shown that graduates benefit financially from their education, then there should be a graduate tax. The financial impact may be the same, but it carries the more general message that those who gain most in financial terms from state actions should return part of that gain to the state.

Oleg Liber

School of education University of Wales, Bangor

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