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.


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

Paul Temple

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The student experience in England: changing for the better and the worse?

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? Continue reading