Students as customers will demand value for cash

September 26, 1997

In the third of our series on the big issues in the Dearing debate, Kate Jenkins draws attention to the needs and demands of students Any British student going to university has already survived an obstacle course of considerable complexity. The process of getting a place, a grant and the relevant A levels would daunt many faint hearts.

This year the icing on the cake has been the saga of the committee of inquiry into higher education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing. Taken as a whole the system would make any cold-war bureaucrat feel comfortably at home.

I rather hoped that things might be better after the publication of the Dearing report this July. But what is needed now is clarity, and, preferably, simplicity. The Government could usefully take a blank sheet of paper, forget the summer, and really try to give a lead to the higher education system. The language needs to be crisp and the messages clear and unambiguous.

So far Dearing, labouring under the twin burdens of impossible terms of reference and a huge committee, has fallen into the pit of reviewspeak; phrases like "our vision puts students at the centre of learning and teaching", indicate muddled thinking.

Higher education is about people learning. The institutions and their administrative preoccupations, and those of the Government are means to that end. And everything that is proposed needs to be tested by whether or not it helps that process.

This proposition is not as banal as it seems. We must stem the flood of administration and management if the institutions of higher education are to get their priorities right.

Even the summary of the Dearing report provided a substantial list of new activities and functions, as well as extensive and broadly sensible advice on the management of institutions.

That will provide a helpful background to what we need from the Government - a clear statement of the priorities for higher education, some reasonable honesty on how the balance can be struck between cost and value and an agreement to leave as much as possible and practicable to be resolved locally.

Whatever the Government says, the situation will change radically if students are charged fees. The key relationship is between the student and the institution. If the students are paying, whatever the proportion of the full cost, they will demand the standards they want. Those standards may not be higher but they may well be different. Customers almost always have a different view of priorities from providers.

Students may not regard the Pounds 1,000 payment as the tax it appears to be under the present proposals.

They will regard the money as payment for their course and they will want to know what they get for their money. It will, of course, exacerbate tensions between the students and their institutions if the students demand value and these are no resources to provide it.

There should be a clear statement of what they are getting for their money and an explanation of why the cost appears to be the same for a crumbling and poorly equipped institution as for one in good order.

Markets are less fashionable now and it is possible to discuss their advantages and disadvantages. Higher education is a classic example where a flexible response to the demands of the marketplace should be allied to quality assurance from a competent regulator.

We need a properly managed higher education sector, we need the right pressure from the Government to see that that happens.

We also need to be sane about the amount of bureaucracy that will produce the best result. If students pay some of the costs, directly or indirectly,they will be in a very strong position to demand changes.

The Dearing report came at the end of a long period of upheaval for higher education. That upheaval is going to continue - both the Government and the Dearing report properly make that clear. But the next stage could be more constructive if the context is clear and not grossly optimistic, and policies are coherent and not confused.

Both Whitehall and higher education need to recognise their separate expertise and responsibilities; the Government supplies the context and higher education an effective response to demand.

Kate Jenkins is chairwoman of Kate Jenkins Associates and a governor at the London School of Economics.

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