Students at the heart of the system? White papers and taking control

The government has issued a long-awaited White Paper on the future of higher education.

Its title, “Students at the heart of the system”, prompted this comment on The Student Room:

“You can’t produce a report titled Students at the Heart of the System but then produce it in a format that only 1% of students will actually read?!”

Very true. In many ways, this White Paper is telling academics and policy makers that they need to make the student the heart of the system.

photo by M.Angel Herrero

photo by M.Angel Herrero

Perhaps all you need to know as a student is that *you* are now in control. If you’re not happy, the system had better sort things out. Pronto!

Otherwise what? Well, otherwise satisfaction goes down and restrictions get put in place that make life difficult for a university.

As with anything, it’s not that simple, but the strength of the ‘student as consumer’ idea is growing by the day.

Want some quotes that prove that point? Here you go:

“…doing more than ever to put students in the driving seat.”

“…we want the sector to become more accountable to students, as well as to the taxpayer.”

“…the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) [is] taking on a major new role as a consumer champion.”

“…institutions must deliver a better student experience; improving teaching, assessment, feedback and preparation for the world of work.”

See what I mean? If nothing else, the White Paper is telling those working in HE to listen to the students, because the student population have the power to change the way things work.

By being at the heart of the system, so long as you continue beating away, the sector keeps working. The sector is meant to change in order to help the heart keep going.

I’m being a bit twee and simplistic at this stage, so let me change tack and go over a few student-specific points that I noted when reading the Executive Summary.

This won’t be exhaustive, but this is still a long post. Take a deep breath, everyone…

First up, the White Paper says:

“To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students and be respected by employers. Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.”

I’ve talked a lot about marketisation of HE and the student experience before. The reality of giving students more power is not clear cut, even if it sounds pretty awesome and sensible.

Student choice is meaningful only if students understand what their choices are, why they have those choices, how to move forward in terms of those choices, and so on.

That doesn’t involve financial power. But, let’s say for a moment if did. Would that change anything? Not really. Financial power cannot itself be helpful in terms of education and what the student would genuinely benefit from. As things stand, there is a missing link.

“…a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive.”

This is another difficult one. A ‘good student experience’ is unique to each student. And satisfaction can play into the hands of being given a relatively easy route through to a degree. Why put pressure on yourself when you can glide through somewhere else without breaking into a sweat?

This attitude is a real danger for all parties involved. Nobody is at fault because it is just a result of the particular situation. Nevertheless, the situation is worth noting, because the issue has legs. The impact will likely increase before anything tempers the beast.

The White Paper also talks of providing more information to prospective students. Sounds great. But a lot of information already exists. A more important element to this is in helping students understand *how* to use the information.

Due to the unique experiences we have as individuals, there is no single useful way to use that information. Policy makers talk of ‘information, advice and guidance’, because information alone isn’t enough. Advice and guidance are necessary too, because instruction doesn’t help. Each person must take responsibility for their own choices.

Yet choice isn’t easy for young adults.

The White Paper states the aim to “deliver a more responsive higher education sector in which funding follows the decisions of learners and successful institutions are freed to thrive”.

The idea that “funding follows the decisions of learners” takes us into utterly unknown territory. Yet it will be used to fuel the future of the HE sector and the future of many young people.

My decisions as a child and as a young adult were not as clear and thought out as they are now. I’m not an exception. Far from it.

I’m the norm.

I have great respect for the very few who have plans, passions, and other big-picture ideas that enable them to move in a direction that genuinely suits them, despite a young age.

It doesn’t matter what your upbringing and how much familial advantage you’ve had; decisions don’t often come naturally and easily. Surely, therefore, that is a key area to concentrate and help thrive.

The paper continues:

“The overall goal is higher education that is more responsive to student choice, that provides a better student experience and that helps improve social mobility.”

Based on what I’ve just said above, this may turn out to be a contradiction. Responding to student choice could hinder social mobility. And while it may improve the student experience, will it achieve the same for the graduate experience? A big question.

The government do start to cover the graduate angle. As part of the increased information package, students will be told about employment for past graduates, starting salaries, and so on. I won’t go further down this line, though, because it begins a whole new set of discussions about the purpose of university, the differences between now and several years in the past, and so on.

For now, I’ll stick with what’s set to be on offer to new students. Back to the White Paper:

“Student charters and student feedback will take on a new importance to empower students whilst at university.”

Students like feedback. Some wish they had more feedback from tutors. So the concept won’t be new to you.

But care must be taken. There is an unfortunate link made between hard work and lack of enjoyment. The link can be false, covering up the real issues, but that doesn’t stop the link from being perceived.

But what if a degree course ticks all the right boxes for you, yet seems a lot harder than the workload of your mates at other unis or on different courses? You may feel hard done by, even if the work is necessary.

Before accepting feedback and charters as a win-win situation, a learning curve is required from both an academic AND a student angle. This could take time and will at least experience some teething trouble, if not long-term problems that stubbornly refuse to go away.

None of this even starts to cover private providers, variable fees, scholarship funds, and so on. An early NUS response to the White Paper covers a lot of this and explains that the paper “raises more questions than it answers“. If you want more detail on these other issues, I suggest check out the NUS summary of the White Paper.

Whatever happens in the aftermath of all this, the government state that they want students to get as much value from their experience as possible. Therefore, HEFCE will be “taking on a new role as consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system”.

To specifically state ‘consumer champion’ shows the government’s real belief in the marketisation of the HE system. In which case, helping students to understand precisely why they want to be in HE and how to further their own goals has to be the way forward. If students MUST act as consumers, the key is to let them become far more than that. If stuck in that single mindset, there is not enough space to expand. Without that space, no amount of HE provision is going to set the student free to explore the possibilities truly available to them.

Regardless of how you may feel about the White Paper, the real challenge now — as I hope it has always been — is to give each and every student the best chance possible to achieve as an individual.

You aren’t simply being given control of the HE sector. You’re being given control of yourself. Make that a satisfying, worthwhile experience and you can make everything else follow suit.

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