Students should expect to have full "consumer rights" if universities and the Government continue to treat them as customers, university heads were told this week, writes Rebecca Attwood.
Wes Streeting, vice-president of the National Union of Students, warned that student unions were coming under increasing pressure to become "glorified consumer rights bodies" since the introduction of the fee regime.
Speaking at a conference on the student experience, he said universities could not complain about the erosion of academic values and growing consumerism while pursuing a model that makes these trends inevitable.
Higher education is increasingly being "sold" to students as an investment, he pointed out.
And while the NUS strongly opposed the commercialisation of higher education, he added, if that was the path followed by the Government and the sector, universities would have to deal with the consequences.
Mr Streeting, who was due to speak at a Universities UK-supported conference titled Satisfying Student Demand , said: "When institutions complain about consumerism and greater tendencies towards litigation among students and their parents, I share your concerns.
"But when institutions attempt to protect themselves from the customers they've created with one-sided student contracts, get-out clauses and armies of lawyers, I say, 'You cannot have your cake and eat it.'
He told The Times Higher : "So far the NUS has resisted it, but we are coming under increasing pressure to operate on the 'consumer rights' model.
It seems that in a desperate grab for funding, vice-chancellors have taken on the marketised system without thinking about the consequences."
A Universities UK spokesperson said: "We don't agree that vice-chancellors have not thought about the consequences of undergraduate fees on student expectation. But we agree with the thrust of the NUS's concerns to ensure that student satisfaction is taken very seriously. This conference has heard the many ways in which staff and students work together to improve the student experience, such as work with the OIA [Office of the Independent Adjudicator], Quality Assurance and Enhancement and the NSS [National Student Survey].
"The aim is to ensure that we build academic communities of staff and students and work together in partnership to meet these challenges."