Students as customers: a cautionary perspective

by Craig Evans

With the new academic year about to start, the second wave of the 9k-a-year generation will follow the first, and the heightened sensitivity to value-for-money that accompanies such a high price tag will spread further among the student body. This sensitivity will invariably express itself on the occasions when things don’t go quite as we’d like, in the form of the rhetorical question: is this what we pay our £9,000 fees for? It’s a fair attitude, and it is also the attitude that the people who hiked up the fees want us to have: to think like customers, to question whether we’re getting our money’s worth from this business called higher education.


Perhaps, though, a degree of caution should be exercised before we hurriedly ingurgitate the vague notion of our entitlement to something more than what we weren’t getting in the first place.


To begin with, the higher tuition fees do not mean that universities have more money than they had before. The threefold increase in fees has been met with a relative reduction in the HEFCE teaching grant, so all that’s really changed is who will be paying most of the bill – more the student and less the taxpayer is the idea.


For most students, the abstractness of the political arguments that lie behind the huge increase in fees are difficult to reconcile with the financial reality of paying three times as much as fellow students who happened to start a year or two before them. It begs the question: what extra services am I getting for these premium rates?


This is a mindset that the government already anticipated back in 2011 with the release of their White Paper on higher education reform, titled Students at the Heart of the System. With this paper, students were firmly cast in the role of customers to whom universities are providing a product. However, as there is no extra money, the product can’t be something physically useful, such as more staff or new equipment; instead, in true 21st-century marketing style, it needs to be the idea of something useful. In this case, that idea was about making students more employable so that upon graduation they can get well-paid jobs and justify the hefty price of their higher education investment.


As with the argument that taxpayers shouldn’t pay for students’ education, this seems like a reasonable enough proposition; that is, at least, until you start to think about it in context.


Take the argument about students paying for their own education: why should taxpayers who have never had or wanted the opportunity to go to university pay for others to have the privilege? Well, this is a bit like asking why should anybody pay for anything that doesn’t affect them in an immediate and direct way; for example, school education for people who don’t have or want children.


The reason why most of us don’t entertain such a ridiculous notion as withdrawing free school education is because we recognise its importance to the economy, society and the general human cause of progress and enlightenment. However, only up to a point it would seem, a point that doesn’t extend quite as far as the contribution made by higher education. Which raises the question: what are universities for?


My personal feeling is that they are environments for the development of knowledge and ideas through research, discussion and teaching, which also have the important function of creating a skilled workforce. At the heart of universities should be critical thought, and the independence of universities is important for ensuring that this is not compromised. Students should be encouraged to think critically about the world so that each new generation can help shape the world they live in. This applies to the kind of work they might do, the type of industries they may help create, and the means with which they are able to bring to fruition their vision for their own future.


If this seems a tad idealistic, then that’s because it’s supposed to be, for where else in society can idealism thrive if not in universities where it has the greatest chance of coming to something?


Or perhaps I should say ‘had’ the greatest chance, which brings us back to the current state of affairs where students are customers buying the product of employability.


As I said above, making students more employable is a very reasonable proposition. The problem is, when you examine this idea further, you quickly discover that graduate employment has actually been a major priority for universities for years. Employment success has long been included as a valued criterion on league tables, and career services are already very well established on university campuses. So many may be forgiven for wondering exactly what this new brand of graduate employment, repackaged as ’employability’, actually means.


What more can universities do that they haven’t already been doing?


The only option left, it would seem, is that they need to include ’employability’ in the curriculum. This may involve creating work experience opportunities in relevant fields, but most likely it will also mean so-called soft skills training. ‘Soft skills training’ is arguably a euphemism for behavioural conditioning where people learn to adopt the language and cultural values of the modern workplace. The problem is, such values may be at odds with the personal ones of an individual. An example might be the feeling of not wanting to use self-promotional language as part of representing yourself as a commodity, even though this may be the best way to achieve employment success. The kind of critical thinking traditionally encouraged in academia may help you to recognise that this is what is taking place. However, as universities’ interests become more aligned with those  of the job market, how long will it be before the academic values of independent thought and investigation are compromised by the need for greater conformity?


An afterthought: perhaps the view of students as customers is an inaccurate one put out there to sell the idea of empowerment and choice. In reality, if universities do start to pander more to the needs of employers, then it is they who would be better described as the customers. In this scenario, students are the products that are packaged by the universities in readiness for being sold at the job market.


I would be very interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of other students. We seem to be living through very volatile times for higher education, and with such a high price to pay, I think it’s important that we are not short-changed as universities try to adapt to the invasive political decisions that have been and are still being made.

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