Institutions hear consumers when students speak

March 5, 2009

Universities think listening to their students is very important - but they put more emphasis on viewing students as "consumers" than on seeing them as "partners in a learning community", according to a new study.

A report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England examines the ways universities listen to their students.

It found that the most common ways were student representation on university committees, which was nearly universal, and student feedback questionnaires. Other models included staff-student liaison committees and students serving as liaison officers.

Although most institutions viewed these as effective, student unions were less likely to do so. A third of them rated student representation on institution-wide committees as very effective, but a third reported that student representation on faculty or departmental committees was not.

A quarter of student unions considered student feedback questionnaires "not very effective".

The report, by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at The Open University, says many university staff discuss these processes in terms of "nipping problems and issues in the bud".

"Such sentiments are likely to reflect the institution's desire to tackle issues early, before too many students are (adversely) affected. However, they could also be seen as having undertones of damage limitation and a reactive mode of operation," the report says.

"One interviewee (heading a university's central quality enhancement unit) suggested that though the institution is 'signed up to listening and being responsive, there has been no fundamental debate about why student engagement is important. The language of student as customer is very strong, but the language of student as junior member of a learning community is less often heard.'"

In a recent speech, Paul Ramsden, head of the Higher Education Academy, said that although institutions increasingly saw students as collaborators, this was happening "against a backdrop of debate on quality that starts from ideas of consumerism (and) instrumentalism".

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