In Times Higher Education last week, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, raised valid concerns about the slow creep of consumerism into higher education ("Now is the age of the discontented").
He made the important observation that in education, "customers" aren't always right: their true needs are often better understood by educational practitioners. He noted that measures of satisfaction (such as the National Student Survey) are often misrepresented as measures of quality in and of themselves, which I agree is a mistake.
Finally, he argued that a culture of complaint could seriously harm the quality of higher education. If students routinely complain about the grades they receive instead of finding out about their true strengths and weaknesses, he may be proved right.
However, I am sure that Furedi would not deny that students may have cause to complain, or the need for procedures to consider those complaints.
There are many aspects of the student experience where satisfaction should be guaranteed. If there is a set text for a course, there should be plenty of copies of it in the library (this is a common gripe). If student accommodation is unheated in the winter, it is a scandal (I have come across such instances). Problems of this sort must be dealt with swiftly and effectively.
We need to pressure institutions into tightening their complaints procedures so that they can investigate the causes of student dissatisfaction and take appropriate action, even if it is to say to students, for pedagogical reasons: "In this area, you are not supposed to feel satisfied." This requires courage, but perhaps we need more of that.
Of the 900 cases referred to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in 2008, 41 were justified, 103 partly justified and 23 were settled. This is evidence of both the rigour of the process and the small number of cases where students were treated badly by their institutions. I remain convinced that we need a serious and independent complaints regime to protect that minority.
I am disappointed that Furedi did not use his article to suggest how the higher education sector could extract itself from the morass he charts. So what is to be done? I am interested in a new approach to learning and teaching based on the notion of "community of practice", a theme recently explored by Frank Coffield, emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education.
It challenges the idea of education as a process of "production" and instead views it as one of "induction". It is the journey students take on their way to becoming active participants and practitioners in a particular trade, profession, discipline or discourse. The emphasis is on building relationships between teachers and students, and among students at all levels of study.
This approach could be developed through teacher-led action that:
- Establishes more extensive student-induction programmes on an accredited basis to address academic values, ethics and ways to expand the learning process;
- Supports self-organising study and discussion groups for different subjects within institutions;
- Increases the frequency of students presenting their own research and ideas, and to more audiences;
- Ensures that feedback is comprehensive and well structured. I agree that it should be impossible for students to "avoid" receiving feedback, but I suspect this is not as great a problem as the poor feedback many students actually receive;
- Allows some course content to be shaped by open discussion among participants, so that they gain a greater sense of the scope of the subject and the alternative roads not taken;
- Increases the amount of joint work and joint assessments, especially in subject areas where this is not the norm;
- Uses social networking to boost the exchange of ideas among students who may not naturally make contact with each other in the classroom.
I hope Furedi will take these ideas on board, and I'd welcome his response. I am sure that this issue will become more important in time. It deserves to be debated.