By Paul Temple
When the present English tuition fee regime was being planned, there were plenty of voices from inside universities warning that it would change the nature of the relationship between students and their universities for the worse. Students would, it was feared, become customers, rather than junior partners in an academic enterprise. Indeed, this was what the Government’s 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, seemed to look forward to: “Better informed students will take their custom to the places offering good value for money” (para 2.24) – in other words, they would, it was hoped, act like normal consumers. Has this happened?
Recent research undertaken on behalf of the Higher Education Academy by Claire Callender, Lyn Grove, Natasha Kersh, and me, in a sample of English universities in early 2014, suggests that, to a significant extent, it has. (I reported on this at the SRHE Conference in December 2014.) There has been a widespread change perceived by staff (note this caveat) in student attitudes towards higher education with – it is widely reported – a more instrumental approach to the benefits students expect from it.
‘The student experience’ has become an organising theme in institutions: this is a new managerial approach, which can have real benefits for students when applied sensitively – or it can lead to a damaging ‘them-and-us’ culture as far as academic staff are concerned if it leads to excessive centralisation and top-down performance management. There can also be a reinforcing spiral of expectations. Higher fees and, in many institutions, an overriding priority to recruit students, seem to have persuaded some higher education managers to regard students as consumers. In turn, this has encouraged students to view themselves as paying customers. As the Higher Education Commission has commented in its recent report, Too Good to Fail, ‘Introducing market forces to a sector that does not operate as a market puts the financial sustainability of the sector at risk; the Commission recommends retreating from this notion.’ This warning may be too late for some institutions.
Treating students as customers when it comes to the kinds of facilities on offer on campus seems entirely justified. But it seems not always to be easy to distinguish between managing catering and managing teaching and learning. The notion of engaging students in their learning, and of the co-production of knowledge between staff and students, is a very different model to that of the client-contractor. Yet there is a danger that customer-related changes in non-academic areas may seep into academic areas.
A clear distinction emerged in our research between the selecting, research-intensive universities studied and the recruiting, teaching-focused ones. The student-as-customer idea appeared to be firmly embedded in the latter group of institutions: it is not exaggerating to say that a new binary line has been created by stealth, with students often unaware of where a particular institution is placed in relation to the line: universities’ marketing activities certainly won’t provide a guide. The results of the 2014 REF seem likely to reinforce this divide, with a handful of major research universities scooping the research funding pool and moving ever-further from the rest. When exactly was it agreed that the future of higher education would be like this?
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London. Paul Temple’s new book, The hallmark university: distinctiveness in higher education management, was published in 2014 by the IOE Press.