Why Students Must Keep Consumer Attitudes Away From Day-to-Day Academic Work


Jim Dickinson asked on Twitter why it’s so difficult for some “to imagine that students can both be customers AND learners”. A binary is so often assumed between students as consumers and students as producers. Why can’t people be both at the same time? After all, we see matters on a multitude of levels. Why should this be any different?

I agree. That said, I worry about the way in which some people use the consumer mindset. It’s easy to have good intentions, yet drift off toward a limiting conclusion.

Dickinson explains why the binary attitude doesn’t work:

“[Students are] usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.”

The ability to seek redress when something goes wrong is important. What’s difficult is keeping consumerist attitudes away from day-to-day academic work.

In a post on Quite Irregular, Jem Bloomfield refers to a paper which found that students with a more consumer mindset would achieve lower grades:

“The authors studied students from a range of British universities, and asked them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of statements intended to identify their attitudes, including their “learner identity” as someone who was engaged in intellectual development, and their “consumer orientation” as someone who was purchasing a product from the university. They also asked for the students’ most recent mark for assessed work.”

The paper concludes that “a lower learner identity was associated with a higher consumer orientation, and in turn with lower academic performance“.

Traditional school leaving students are already overwhelmed by the sheer number of changes and new considerations upon arriving at university. By introducing an additional layer of complexity that compels some students to look at value for money, there are potential dangers.


Instead of coming to university with an open mind to enjoy and experience a wide range of what’s on offer, some students see the huge investment they’re making and keep their focus on only what they consider they are paying for. They break down contact hours from lectures and seminars into divisible chunks. Divide the annual tuition fee by the number of contact hours per year and *that* is how much it costs to attend a session.

Breaking down £9k into a per-lecture framework is sobering. And unhelpful.

The sobering effect can focus the mind on putting all effort into the academic work. It’s this added consumer element that creates a jarring effect. Students are shocked by their three dimensional life and react by putting their actions in two dimensional terms.

Bloomfield says:

“It frames a degree as something which they can just add to their existing collection of possessions. This prepares them to resist ideas which might call into question their previous assumptions, since this would reduce their already accumulated “store” of ideas, rather than adding to it. It also discourages them from taking intellectual risks, since these might damage their final mark and thus devalue the “product”, even if they might also result in personal development and new perspectives which could be useful in future.”

For decades, students in different subjects have compared their workload and structure of their degrees. One spends hours on experiments in a lab and have cosy lectures with just a few other students present. Another has a handful of lectures with a hundred others, losing much of that personal feel felt in a smaller group.

Even when the contact hours are the same, other differences are a marker of better or worse value for money.

This forces an even stronger consumer stance. It’s not about getting what you need, it’s about not being diddled. If someone else can have that level of experience for the same price, why can’t I?

Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, expresses his concern:

“[A powerful] but in my mind distorting, view comes from the idea that value of a course is not measured in cost or effort but simply in the quantity of contact hours. It is in the comparison between subjects that don’t involve practice and those that do that the sharpest comments arise.”

Such a focus on this limited definition of value doesn’t provide enough context. So those who want better value for money and focus on the transaction may get less value for money as a result.


Even students who align their consumer focus to achieving the best academic results possible aren’t setting themselves up so well for the future. They work to the detriment of everything else for a top result when they graduate, but what other qualities and achievements can they showcase? Employers won’t be interested in how many contact hours they had.

In fact, employers are already less likely to focus so hard on a person’s academic study, choosing to look more broadly at candidates.

Yet research by The Student Room and the University of Sheffield found that 68% of A-level students now plan to take a postgraduate course after they graduate. Respondents mostly want to ‘enhance their career prospects’ and many also believe that postgraduate study will give them better chances of employment and better salary.

Spot the disparity. There are many good reasons you can give for taking up postgraduate study. Is the thought of having more chance of a job a good enough reason on its own?

The transactional side of higher education feels both valuable and damaging at the same time. Gaps could be widening at a time when people think they’re being bridged.

So how can individuals keep their positive three dimensional perspective intact? One way is to stay aware of the hidden value that exists where consumer ideas haven’t yet strayed. Another is to stay focused on the bigger picture as opposed to only what you think you’re paying for.

But if you must have it in consumer terms, think of the degree as the minimum viable product and you as the innovative business. You build your business to improve the initial product.

That product may start as a degree, but thanks to you–the business–it can grow into an irresistible package that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. Synergy-licious!

Graduates and the language of jobs

Is getting a job more important than being employable?

Martin Edmondson, CEO of Gradcore and Graduates Yorkshire, has found that graduates and employers may be looking at careers from different perspectives.

photo by Zach Klein

photo by Zach Klein

In preparation for the Graduate Employment Conference 2012 (#GEC12), I’ve asked Martin whether students and graduates viewed ’employability’ differently to employers and, if so, how parties could move closer to a shared understanding:

“The whole of the Gradcore business concept is built on improving the understanding and interactions between organisations, universities and graduate. Therefore we take this issue pretty seriously.

“We have recently finished our second running of the ‘Big Graduate Survey’ in Yorkshire, and have doubled our responses this year, with 3800 graduates responding. One of the free-text response questions asked what they wanted from their careers services. Whilst we haven’t yet had time to process the 1400 comments, our clever survey software can produce a wordcloud from the responses, with the biggest word being most commonly mentioned. The word that emerged was ‘Jobs’ and not ‘Employability’. This does not mean that employability is not important, it just means that the head down graduate view of employability can be encapsulated in ‘help me get a job’.”

When I speak with graduates, language does turn to matters of ‘looking for a job’, ‘applying for jobs’. ‘Employability’ isn’t a term frequently mentioned. And with a lot of advice suggesting that graduates tailor each application to the particular job, perhaps the focus moves to being employable for every individual job, rather than growing an understanding of what makes a person employable in an overall sense. There is no single answer, but there are certainly common themes.

Even common themes can prove difficult, as Martin explains:

“From the employer perspective there is as much disagreement about what constitutes employability as there is in Universities. One of the most commonly cited components of employability cited by employers is ‘commercial awareness’. Unfortunately when you ask 5 different employers what commercial awareness is, you will get five different answers. In our employability development courses we have taken this on board and now coach graduates in what we have categorised as the 5 key elements of commercial awareness. Maybe even that is too complex, as I recently met a chamber of commerce president  who insisted that her members knew graduates had skills but simply wanted them to get better at being ‘nice people to work with’.

“As with all things, ascribing a single view to an imaginary homogenous group of graduates, universities and employers is dangerous, but these are real life examples that illustrate the gaps that need bridging. I have found fairly consistently is that in the interconnection of businesses of graduates, common and key factors are culture and values.”

Culture and values suggest an ongoing desire to extend understanding of a wide range of issues. These are not so much skills, but a sense of empathy, engagement, and a forward-facing attitude that’s ready for change.

As Harold Jarche recently said, “Given that 65% of todays’ students will end up in jobs that don’t exist today, we know work will change significantly in the next decade. The network economy is changing everyone’s business, and will significantly affect education and training as well.”

Martin explains that as HE continues to move toward marketisation, students will increasingly consider the link between fees and graduate employment outcomes. He says, “more than ever before, universities need to produce employable graduates (whatever they think that means)”.

The ‘whatever they think that means’ part is important too. Without linking up the views of students, universities, and companies, there is a danger that thoughts will be a confusion of irrelevant assumptions. Without listening to each other, how would students be best placed for the jobs they desire and how would employers be able to find the right fit?

As for universities, how would they keep on board a large number of their students ongoing? While the purpose of university is not solely to train people up for employment, many people attend university in order to help their future prospects. If the links between study and future employability are not forthcoming, what then?

CIHE’s David Docherty suggests, “[Universities] need internships, placements, short-work bursts, and embedded doctorates to help them develop ‘fused graduates'”. Think of it, perhaps, as university beyond university.

Martin Edmondson left me with a number of questions that he sees as important for each group to consider their position:

  • Is one of the issues in student engagement around employability the word itself?
  • How can business adapt to and embrace the qualities brought by generation Y graduates?
  • How can graduates accelerate their understanding of different workplaces so they make themselves attractive to employers?
  • How can culture and values be harnessed to build understanding and connectivity between employers and graduates?
  • How can Universities act as a bridge between the two groups, and develop ones understanding of the other?

These are important questions. It is up to all parties to ensure graduates can shine after they have been at university.

Change is ongoing, which gives much room for innovation. As a recent Harvard Business Review piece asks, “Isn’t real innovation supposed to blow through thresholds to create something of new value?”

So, who’s up for blowing through some thresholds?

How To Make the Most of YOUR Student Experience

Q: What is ‘the student experience’?
A: It’s what you make it!

This week, I held a workshop at the University of Glamorgan about ‘the student experience’.

I’ve mentioned Glamorgan in the past for their brilliant Glam Insight, where students write about their time at the university and their experiences while they study.

The students make clear how different their lives are, how varied their experiences are, and how wide-ranging their opportunities are.

In the workshop, I asked four questions. They are covered in the presentation below. But if I could sum things up as briefly as possible, here’s what I’d say in a nutshell:

  1. What IS ‘the student experience’?
    Nothing in particular. Reclaim it as your own. Ask what you want and why you want it.
  2. What should young people consider when applying?
    The bigger picture first, and only then the fact that they would like to live in nice halls.
  3. Why do students leave?
    Not enough subject research and not enough knowledge of what’s on offer.
  4. How do students make ‘the student experience’ work for them?
    Be selfish, open up to change, and be prepared to fail.

Question 4 is the big one here. If you want to skip the Prezi presentation itself and get straight to the good stuff in the archives, I’ve got the top 10 tips on making the most of your experience underneath.

“The Student Experience” on Prezi

How do you make the most of
‘the student experience’? 10 Tips

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others. The Student Experience is YOUR experience.
  2. Be involved!
  3. Seek out new opportunities and experiences rather than waiting for them to come to you.
  4. Embrace failure.
  5. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, keep going.
  6. Take your experience seriously, even when you’re having fun.
  7. Enjoy the benefits, but do remember you can have too much of a good thing…
  8. Embrace the unknown. Prepare for the unknown. But don’t fear the unknown.
  9. Look beyond employability. Look beyond the piece of paper you get at the end of those years.
  10. Focus more on yourself, less on the degree. “Your degree isn’t the source of awesome. You are.”

The Possible Impossibility of Employability…

Let me guess. If you’re a uni student reading this, am I right in thinking you’d like to be employable once you graduate?

It’s probably fair to say the vast majority of students want better job and career choices as a result of their study, even when it’s not their main reason for attending uni.

At a recent Guardian seminar on employability, one question raised was that of responsibility. Who should be ultimately responsible for ensuring people graduate with better chances of employability?

The university? The student? Schools? Employers?

Should it be necessary for anyone to tick a box saying they ensure employability standards of a particular level? Or is the link between students and employability a false trail?

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

There’s no fixed definition of ’employability’. The term isn’t rigid. Either that, or it ends up sounding vague:

“The skills, attributes and knowledge of an individual which affect the likelihood of finding, obtaining and being retained in suitable employment.” [Source]

That definition was a response to a piece by David Winter. Winter followed up with a tough question. How can this likelihood be measured and how can you increase that likelihood?

There is no clear answer. But since employment itself can be measured statistically, we’re not about to see the end of analysing numbers of graduates in work and their various career destinations. Whether the detail can truly indicate individual likelihood of one thing or another is a different matter.

The increased marketisation of higher education means that universities will want to appear successful in having its graduates finding paid work. It means that students will want to attend an institution that can deliver the best rates of employment. And it means that government will want to see figures that demonstrate how amazing certain universities are in educating people where it is necessary.

False trail or not, the situation is geared up to be viewed in terms of life after graduation, even before a place at uni has been secured.

Mario Creatura said in June:

“[Potential students] will undoubtedly start to look for courses that have a proven track record in employability and prestige. HEFCE/UUK/GuildHE’s work on the KIS [Key Information Sets] is testament to this.”

However, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, Janet Beer recently said, “I am worried about an over-emphasis by students on employability…[students want] employability, but we offer a much richer experience…We must not get sucked into thinking that we are providing some kind of production-line product”.

MIT’s Samuel Jay Keyser shares Janet Beer’s concern:

“During a recent random faculty dinner that I hosted, faculty members from the schools of science and engineering complained about the attitude of present-day students. In their view, all they want to do is just what’s necessary to get through a class. There’s no fire in the belly to get to the bottom of the subject.” [Source]

The sad thing about this is that a fire in the belly would probably be more helpful in the long run.

None of this is really the fault of students though. Neither can you blame universities for not pushing their weight. Instead, it points toward a certain lack of correlation between a degree and employability. Some things can be measured, but that doesn’t mean you can make great sense of it under these conditions.

Unistats now publishes employability statements for universities and explores the employment prospects for graduates.

The statistics are one way for potential students to choose an institution that suits them. However:

  1. It is only a guideline;
  2. There are many other factors to assess when choosing a university.

If employability is a key driver to your choices, it must also be clear that you can do a lot to become more employable without relying on a degree result. In other words, nobody is two-dimensional.

Other matters are also important, including (among approximately a zillion other things…):

  • Relationships and key interactions with others;
  • Extra-curricular activities;
  • Prior experience in your chosen field(s);
  • Examples of going ‘above and beyond’ what’s necessary;
  • Critical assessment/evaluation;
  • Examples of managing projects;
  • Publically visible achievements and/or a portfolio of professional work.

No single attribute will swing open the doors to an all-encompassing employability. Roles are different, personalities are different, everything is different. So how can employability be the same thing to all people and all companies?

A recent Edge Foundation report states:

“While there are variations in the classification of employability, there is a broad understanding of what qualities, characteristics, skills and knowledge constitute employability both in general, and specifically for graduates. Employers expect graduates to have technical and discipline competences from their degrees but require graduates also to demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and managerial abilities.

“It is arguable that specific definitions are less important than an agreed focus on approaches to promote such transferable skills and fostering attributes that will enable graduates to find appropriate employment, progress in their work and thus facilitate the success of their organisations and contribute to society and the economy.”

It seems that individual roles and careers will carry specific requirements and expectations, while a more general overview appreciates a rounded character.

Much frustration arises because there’s no magic answer for you to explain why you’ve got what a potential employer wants. If there was, we’d all be giving the magic answer. And what would employers do then?

The big take home point here is to understand that your focus on what’s important out of university shouldn’t rely solely on the certificate you get after three or more years. You owe yourself to go beyond that. Your degree isn’t the source of awesome. You are.

Find your brand. Work your brand. Love your brand.

If the degree said it all, your CV would state where you studied, what you studied, and how you were graded. You wouldn’t need anything else.

Hopefully you agree that isn’t the case. 🙂

No matter how vague the term ’employability’ is, you’re not stuck for options. You can still make moves toward improving your lot. Big moves. As big as you want them to be.

You ready? Then take a look through these posts from TheUniversityBlog’s archive. Best of luck to you!