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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.

References

Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press


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Five stages of marketisation in English higher education policymaking

by Colin McCaig

The use of the term ‘neoliberal’ to describe the marketisation of HE systems implies a ‘grand design’ that takes a public service like HE and creates a market; however it seemed to me that this differed from a ‘free capitalist market’, nor did my understanding of the historical development of HE in England seem to reflect such a simple linearity of design. Therefore I decided a couple of years ago to really nail down what neoliberal marketisation means in the context of the English HE system. The result was The marketisation of English higher education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, my 2018 book summarised in a paper to the SRHE Research Conference in December 2018. Employing a political discourse analysis (PDA) approach to a close reading of 16 HE policy documents over the last thirty years I identified five distinct stages of marketisation policy, reflected in arguments used to justify reform:

Stage 1: efficiency, accountability and human capital (1986-1992)

This stage was exemplified by reforms highlighted in: the Jarratt (1985) Report on university management and the Croham Report (1986) on the future of the University Grants Committee; the 1987 White Paper; the 1988 Education Reform Act; and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Arguments deployed included the need for ‘New Public Management’ thinking: ideas that promoted entrepreneurialism among university and polytechnic leaders. University and polytechnic boards, and the new Universities Funding Council, would henceforth include business representatives; individual academics were also encouraged to be more entrepreneurial, selling their expertise as consultants. At the same time the binary system would be unified and expanded in the hope that institutional competition would ensue, the better to meet the changing basis of demand for human capital in the knowledge economy of the future.

Stage 2: diversity as a good (1992-2000)

Policy documents during the 1990s largely celebrated and encouraged diversity and the prospects for widening participation. The new landscape of different types of institutions and modes of HE were seen as essential for expansion and lifelong learning needs. While the discourse shifted radically in some ways from stage 1, human capital needs were still to the fore – as important as social justice arguments when it came to arguing for a widening of participation. The Dearing Report (1997) encapsulated most of the debates around the future size and shape of the sector and how to fund expansion, recommending the introduction of partial fees. Commissioned by the Conservatives, it reported to an incoming Labour government wedded to social justice objectives and lifelong learning.

Stage 3: diversity becomes differentiation (2003-2010)

The major policy statements covered in this stage – the 2003 White Paper, 2004 HE Act, and the 2009 White Paper – introduced radically new arguments for a new purpose. No longer would system diversity be celebrated for its own sake, HEIs were now exhorted to differentiate their offer in the marketplace to attract applicant-consumers. Responding to institutional pressures for more funding, government introduced a variable tuition fee, on the assumption that only the most highly-demanded universities would justify the higher fee of £3,000 per annum. The policy arguments used in this stage were unusually reactive; the Russell Group and 1994 Group of universities had long lobbied for ‘top-up fees’, partly on the basis of actual costs but also because they believed they needed to be differentiated in the market from ‘other’ universities and types of HEIs. Greater centralisation paved the way for the regulatory framing for the market we see in 2019.

Stage 4: competitive differentiation (2010-15)

This stage can be seen mainly as the continuation of the implications of the previous stage – the arguments deployed in the Browne Review of HE funding and student finance (2010) and the 2011 White Paper Students at the heart of the systemdominated policy discourse. The need to have an efficient, responsive differential system reflecting a competitive fee distribution, to (roughly) match the UCAS points distribution between highly-demanded and less demanded institutions, became more critical in the era of £9,000 a year tuition fees. This decision can be seen as the key driver of virtually all policy since 2010.

Stage 5: risk and exit: the completion of the market?

The 2015 Green Paper and 2016 White Paper introduced proposals and legislative measures finally to actuate the variable tuition-fee market as envisaged as long ago as 2003. The Higher Education and Research Act introduced a single regulator for all and any HE providers – the omnipotent Office for Students (OfS) which manages, via quality oversight and funding incentives, the system of risk-based monitoring that is designed to encourage ‘exit’ for failing providers, to be replaced, if necessary, by new alternative providers encouraged in turn by lower Degree Awarding Powers and University Title barriers to market entry.

Marketisation 1986-2019: a tortured path or linear progression?

At the time of writing no providers have been allowed to fail/exit and many in the sector are in denial that government would ever allow it to happen: but that is the iron logic of the market thus constructed. Successive OfS and government statements (from OfS Chair Michael Barber, and successive Universities Ministers Sam Gyimah and Chris Skidmore) have been at pains to reassure us that they will not prop up a failing institution, defined as one that that fails to attract enough applicant-consumers willing to pay a given tuition fee. New providers, coming to market with a cheaper offer, will finally create downward pressure on (stubbornly un-differentiated) fees: ‘failing’ providers either lower their fees or risk losing students to the competition. Needless to say, none of this harms the established research-intensive ‘elite’ providers that had been lobbying for differential fees since the late 1990s.

Was all this part of a grand neoliberal design, a blueprint for marketisation? Or a collection of reactive decisions designed to ameliorate the effects of the unintended consequences of previous reforms, or indeed externalities such as the 2008 crash? Diversity and (largely unplanned) expansion certainly begat defensive differentiation among the existing (pre-1992) universities, which immediately called for the right to charge ‘top-up’ fees in the name of differentiation. Government, meanwhile, trying to widen participation for human capital as well as social justice purposes, also needing to satisfy the pre-1992s, hit upon choice for the applicant consumer in the run up to the 2003 White Paper as the mechanism that would allow applicants to see where the most highly valued HE was to be found. The Times Higher Education duly obliged with the first wave of its ‘price-list’ domestic league tables from 2005. While commercial league tables never featured in any policy statement, officially endorsed indicators of ‘quality’ such as the National Student Survey, the Destination of Leavers from HE survey and a UNISTATs website containing consumer information were all conceived at this dawning of the competitive market, all in the name of differentiating the system so that applicants could differentiate the pre-1992 ‘wheat’ from the post-1992 ‘chaff’.

The ‘end-stage’ of the market (HERA 2017) attempts to open up the system to cheap incomers that maybe, just maybe, will provide the much needed downward pressure on average tuition costs. Poorer students are exhorted to think hard about increasing their own (and public) future debt by choosing the wrong kind of HE providers: the 2016 White Paper celebrates the good access record of many ‘new providers’ and the virtues of alternatives such as apprenticeships. After twenty years of promoting the ‘graduate premium’ (first noted in the Dearing Report 1997), the White Paper points out how differentiated that benefit can be, and promises us more sophisticated evidence from tax returns (LEO data) to dissuade those with the least chance of enhancing their life though HE.

Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University He has published extensively on widening participation and system differentiation and is a political scientist by background. His book The marketisation of English Higher Education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, was published by Emerald Publishing (ISBN: 9781787438576) in 2018

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Nonsense on stilts

By Rob Cuthbert

How does government think Britain’s higher education can be improved? The government legislated in 2017 to expand competition in a statutory higher education market. We may think this is a consistent policy narrative for public services, but consider the experience of transport. How does government think Britain’s transport system can be improved? After years of debate the government finally announced in October 2016 that it would expand Heathrow rather than Gatwick. And in recent months government has considered reopening some railway lines closed in the Beeching cuts 50 years ago. These policy choices in HE and transport differ considerably in how they have been framed.

50 years ago government set up the Roskill Commission to examine alternatives for London’s third airport; it relied heavily on an economic perspective. Peter Self’s (LSE) famous article in Political Quarterly in 1970 said: ‘Nonsense on stilts … Bentham’s unfair description of natural rights, is a phrase which might more fairly be used of the gigantic cost-benefit exercise which is currently being carried out by the Roskill Commission’ It was academic economists who helped to dismantle the primacy of economic arguments. In 2017-2018 the government is consulting on proposals for the third runway at Heathrow, with new legal objections coming from the local councils around the airport. Politicians losing the political argument are resorting to law. Economics no longer frames the argument.

50 years ago drastic cuts in the rail network followed the ‘notorious’ Beeching report: ‘ Continue reading

Jeroen Huisman


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Research on higher education policy

By Jeroen Huisman

Research on higher education in general, apparently, is alive and kicking. Tight (2012) calls higher education “big business” and other authors refer to the massification of higher education (read: more students, more staff, potentially more researchers interested in higher education) but also to the increasing important of higher education and research in contemporary society to signify increasing interest in higher education research.

The growth is also evidenced by an increase in journals focusing on higher education (Altbach, 2009) and in the growth of research centres on higher education (Rumbley et al., 2015). Although that growth may be uneven: with considerable growth in new economies in e.g. Asia and Latin America and stabilisation in (Western) Europe and the US, Rumbley et al (2015, 7) argue that “higher education is fast moving from the margins to the centre of much discussion and debate among policymakers around the world”.

Elsewhere (Huisman, 2015), I argued that behind this growth there are patterns of diversity Continue reading

MaryStuart


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Looking back to look forward at the student experience

By Mary Stuart

Attempting a review of work on the student experience over the last 50 years is daunting. The concept of the ‘student experience’ is so defuse and covers so many areas  that any review would be partial. However I will attempt to discuss what themes I believe to be important as they have emerged in research on the student experience in HE along with what questions have been asked by researchers of these themes and how these themes and questions relate to the rapidly, it seems looking back, changing higher education landscape.

I wish to place this discussion in the context of what I believe are the two overarching policy narratives which have shaped higher education since 1965 which have therefore driven the research and impact agendas for the student experience. The relationship between policy and research is complex, sometimes with research questions developing because of new policies and sometimes with research influencing new policy.  However all research on the student experience can be seen as deriving from the processes of the Massification and Marketisation of higher education, the two meta-narratives for HE in the last 50 years.  I will begin with Massification.

The concept of Massification in HE comes from Trow (1970) Continue reading