Should university students be seen as learners or customers?
While you might argue they are both, the dividing line…
between the two has become dangerously blurred. This was underlined by two news stories this week.
First there was the allegation from a senior academic that league tables have put universities under pressure to mark too leniently and to overlook plagiarism.
Second there was the whistleblower who claimed that degrees are being awarded to overseas students who lacked basic English language skills because of the lucrative nature of the foreign student market.
There was a third story, a few weeks back, on a related issue. This was the discovery that two university lecturers had urged students to exaggerate the scores they gave to their institution in the National Student Survey because, they claimed, everyone else was doing so.
There is a common theme to each of these stories: the pressures on academics to make sure that their universities are marketable to current and potential customers.
These pressures are understandable but must be resisted. They are understandable because it is bums-on-seats that determines the bulk of university funding, particularly at universities which receive little research funding.
Wall of silence
The notion of undergraduate and postgraduate students as customers is still relatively new. Its effect has been ratcheted up by the introduction of variable or top-up fees and the increasing reliance on fees from overseas students.
However we have got to the point now where we really must decide whether a university is just another service provider or a community of scholars.
I believe many university leaders are, at least in public, complacent about this.
I was at a public debate on education this week when the two news stories about lenient marking were raised. None of the educationalists that spoke were willing to acknowledge that these pressures even existed.
Indeed the one vice-chancellor present felt there was simply no case to answer.
There is still an official wall of silence about such allegations. A common response is that the whistleblowers are letting the side down and are damaging the reputation of British universities.
Yet you only have to read the large number of responses to the BBC News website to see that the allegations chime with many academics. It is a sad state of affairs that many clearly felt they had to remain anonymous.
Whatever happened to academic freedom?
The spread of the consumer model of university education is not just a result of the actions of competitive and cash-strapped vice-chancellors.
The policies of successive governments have encouraged this model through the squeeze on per student funding, the imperative to expand, and the attempt to introduce a market in fees and bursaries.
Students, and increasingly parents, have also stressed the consumerist aspect of their role. They are now more directly aware of a cash relationship with universities.
Nor is this just about money. The concept of the “helicopter parent” (that is the parent who continues to hover over their offspring even after they have left home for university) owes much to a generation of mothers and fathers who have been encouraged to be active consumers as their children have gone through the school system.
University league tables and the National Student Survey are of a piece with school performance tables and Ofsted reports. They encourage a shopping around approach.
One result has been that universities now face more complaints from students. Last year, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales received 734 complaints.
That was a 25% increase on the previous year. Remember too that these are only the tip of the iceberg since most complaints are settled within institutions.
Interestingly 26% of complaints came from international students and 36% were from postgraduates. Almost two-thirds of the complaints related to academic results.
But universities must bear much of the blame for this rise in the complaints culture.
The glossy brochures and the expensive advertising campaigns that are offered by many universities often exceed the reality that greets students when they arrive.
As one admirably straight-talking vice-chancellor, Eric Thomas from Bristol University, told a conference recently: “the hyperbole” many universities use to describe themselves is “quite eye-watering”. He added that the picture painted by many prospectuses was as real as “la-la land”.
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell has acknowledged that students are less deferential than in the past. He told a recent conference on “Student Satisfaction” that “students are becoming more demanding partly because they want value for money but also as we see more older and articulate students”.
It is probably also true to say that students are more concerned now about their degree level than they were in the past. Twenty to thirty years ago simply having a degree made you marketable to employers. Now there is great pressure to get at least a 2:1.
All of this has made it inevitable that students will be more demanding about the quality of their courses, teaching, assessment and facilities.
It is right that they should know how many hours of teaching they will receive and how often they will meet their tutors.
It may even be that we need better, and more specific, contacts between universities and students. So long as the focus is on delivering good quality teaching and research facilities this element of consumer satisfaction is a good thing.
But we must not lose sight of what a university is fundamentally about: it is a place of learning where students and teachers should be part of a learning community not just providers and customers.
The responsibility to ensure that we do not succumb to a purely customer model falls squarely on university leaders. It cannot be on the government since, quite rightly, universities insist they are independent bodies.
As such they must regulate themselves. Vice-chancellors must put competition for students and markets in second place behind the need to preserve academic standards and independence.
The only pressure academics should be under when marking students’ work is the pressure of their peers to maintain standards and the pressure from students for fair and equal treatment.
If vice-chancellors are unable to resist these pressures individually then they must, collectively through organisations such as Universities UK, take a stand against those who put marketing and consumerism above academic integrity.