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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Higher education as food labelling

Food labelling for university courses

From the BBC website:

School leavers applying to English universities will get more data about courses under government plans to treat them more like consumers. A food labelling-style system will flag up teaching hours, career prospects and seminar frequency, says the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

On Tuesday, it will announce a new framework for higher education. The plan aims to set out priorities for universities ahead of a review of the way students fund their education. Tuition fees were introduced in 1998 and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson believes this entitles students to act more like consumers.

He has said government and industry must scrutinise and monitor courses on behalf of students, encouraging “a greater degree of competition between institutions” to drive improvement in courses. His department already publishes statistics on employability after six months and three-and-a-half years, but the latest plans would put information in one place. This could include graduates’ typical future earnings, contact hours with tutors, assessment methods and frequency of tests.

So instead of detailed descriptions of each course in prospectuses, via ucas, on university websites and the detail of league table subject comparisons, we are going to have something like this:

fsafoodlabels

It really isn’t at all clear how this is going to be in any way an improvement or of real value to prospective students. Consolidating small pieces of information into one place in this way suggests that a much more superficial assessment of quality is the aim here. And how is it going to be decided what is red and what is green?

Let’s hope that the real proposals are a bit better than this implies.