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?

Swings and roundabouts?

UK students rush to Maastricht. European students run to the UK

So what is the story here? Is UK (or English) higher education in the post-Browne era so terrible that a mass exodus to the Netherlands is underway? The Independent reports that a Dutch university has seen a ‘tenfold’ rise in applicants:

The number of British teenagers applying to one of Europe’s leading universities has risen dramatically this year. Maastricht University in the Netherlands has seen a tenfold increase with more than 400 applications from UK students compared with just 35 at the same time last year.

A key factor in the rise is the cost of studying at Maastricht: only £1,526 a year, compared with £3,240 at present at English universities.

Many of those who applied are fearful of their chances of getting a UK place this September as the number of applications has soared as people attempt to beat the rise in tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year next September.

 

So, shocking news there. But, wait a minute. It seems that there is another flow of traffic here. The Daily Express reports that more students from other EU states want to come to the UK to benefit from our generously subsidised higher education system and low cost loans:

Applications by students from member states in mainland Europe rose by a record 5.8 per cent at the end of May, with almost 46,000 applying in total.

UK candidates increased by 0.8 per cent, meaning they may face even more competition in the race for degree courses this summer, as applicants clamour for places before a rise in tuition fees next year.

Students from across the European Union are subsidised by the taxpayer and are eligible for low-interest Government loans. They also count towards the strict cap on university places, putting them in direct competition with UK applicants.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) revealed that 45,727 EU students applied by last month, up 2,515 on the same time last year.

In 2010, the number of Lithuanians who won places at UK universities increased by 71 per cent. The number of Latvians was up 61 per cent and Romanians 57 per cent.

Shocking stuff. It’s lucky we can have it both ways on this issue.

Morrisons to pay students’ tuition fees

The shape of things to come?

A story from the Guardian from back in October noted that the supermarket chain said it will pay for students’ university fees if they enrol on a degree course it is sponsoring. Morrisons is to fund 20 undergraduates a year on a three-year degree course in business and management.

The supermarket admits the course will leave little time for the recreational side of university life. Students will not take university holidays, but will have an annual leave allowance. They will receive £15,000 a year and will not have to pay their tuition fees of £3,290 a year. The students are also guaranteed a job once they graduate and must work for Morrisons for at least three years. Teenagers apply through Morrisons rather than Ucas, the centralised system for all university applications in the UK.

Morrisons is not quite the first retailer to offer a degree: in June Harrods announced it was to offer two-year degrees in sales with Anglia Ruskin University. A week ago GlaxoSmithKline announced it would sponsor a module on University of Nottingham chemistry degrees – the first collaboration of its kind between a pharmaceutical company and a university. Tesco sponsors a pre-degree foundation course in retail with Manchester Metropolitan University and University of the Arts London.

An earlier post commented on the Harrods development along with a Wal-Mart programme in the USA. Following the Browne review outcomes we can expect more of this.

Browne report: the end of the QAA (and OFFA and OIA)

Beyond changes to higher education funding

Naturally, all of the attention today will be on the funding elements of the Browne report. However, one significant change which is unlikely to attract much comment will nevertheless carry major implications for universities. It is proposed to merge four agencies into one:

The higher education system is currently overseen by four bodies: HEFCE, QAA, OFFA and OIA. These will be replaced by a single Higher Education (HE) Council. It will take a more targeted approach to regulation, with greater autonomy for institutions.

The Council will be independent from Government and institutions. It will have five areas of responsibility:
• Investment – identifying and investing in high priority courses; evaluating value for money; dealing with the unexpected, with the primary aim of protecting students’ interests
• Quality – setting and enforcing minimum quality levels across the whole sector
• Equity of access – making sure that individual institutions and the sector as a whole make measurable progress on admitting qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds
• Competition – ensuring that students get the benefits of more competition, by publishing an annual survey of charges, and looking after the interests of students when an institution is at risk
• Dispute resolution – students can ask the Council to adjudicate on a dispute that cannot be resolved within their institution and provide a decision which binds both sides
The HE Council will explain how it is investing taxpayers’ money, and safeguarding students’ investment in higher education, through an annual report to Parliament.

So, it looks like the end of the road for the QAA, OFFA and OIA.