Student leaders have consistently argued that higher education should not be treated as a consumer product, claiming a “students as partners” approach is a more effective way to manage relations between students and institutions.
Megan Dunn, the current president of the National Union of Students, argued last year that “higher education as distinctive enough to require its own set of norms and codes to govern the relationship between students and providers”, while past president Liam Burns said that the NUS had rejected “going down a consumerist route” in its representation of students.
However, researchers at the University of Surrey, who interviewed managers and students' unions at 10 UK universities, found anti-consumerist positions by unions had “not been successful”.
In a paper published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education this month, Rachel Brooks, the study’s lead author, said that the nature of relationships between unions and their university often makes it difficult for students' unions to reject consumerism – either because they have little independence to develop their own agenda due to financial dependence on their institution, or because they are dependent on their own consumer activities (such as bars, clubs and shops) to retain some independent income.
“The irony for students' unions is that one of the main means of retaining independence and being able to resist consumerist agendas, is by embracing commercialism and providing services to paying students,” said Professor Brooks.