Students as consumers? Or not?

University isn’t just a business – and the student isn’t always right

In his review of higher education funding, Lord Browne made the student as consumer the centrepiece of his rationale for change. The Government’s White Paper last June also claimed it was putting students “at the heart of the system”. The Guardian Higher Education Network is running a live Q&A on students as consumers today:

Driven by the government’s HE reforms, the words ‘consumer’ and market’ are an increasingly central part of the British academic lexicon. Speaking at the HEFCE annual conference in April – ahead of the publication of the HE white paper – Vince Cable, the secretary of state said: “Making the higher education system more responsive to students, your consumers…is one of the central purposes of our reforms.” He later added: “The biggest mistake a university could make is to underestimate its consumers.”

And, as a helpful primer, they have reminded people of a piece I wrote for them on this topic some months ago:

Unfortunately things aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. Higher education is not just like any other business and there are real issues with the information available to assist prospective students. However, student behaviour is changing and there is some evidence that they are becoming rather more demanding.

We are all consumers. We are all customers. In every aspect of our lives we are treated more than ever before like this. In choosing schools for our children, in hospital selection and which bus company to use we are expected to behave as consumers. And these are public services. Not to mention the bewildering choice we face when making a more straightforward product choice, for example for a vacuum cleaner or a tin of beans.

However, higher education is a slightly unusual kind of business and differs from other businesses in a number of ways.

Obviously that’s not all of it, just the opening. The full piece is available via the Guardian Higher Education Network.

So, students as consumers? Or not?

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One thought on “Students as consumers? Or not?

  1. As ever, Laurie Taylor was there first. Students as shoppers.

    Here at Poppleton University (or the University of Poppleton as it was better known before our recent re-branding exercise) we pride ourselves on leading the field in the marketisation of higher education. Our recent decision to describe all students as ‘shoppers’ has been broadly welcomed by all our sales staff (formerly the academic community) while my own previous experience in the management of a large biscuit factory has given me unique insights into the art of persuading people to purchase well-wrapped objects of little value. (Taylor, in Molesworth et al 2011)

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