marketisation

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.

Is big change in higher education possible?

With votes of no confidence flying around and private ventures getting serious amounts of flack, the world of academia has been pretty animated this week.

You know it’s serious when The Guardian decides to run a live-blog of events

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

But rather than weigh into a debate that’s being flogged to death, I want to ask one big question:

  • Can HE actually achieve truly different models of teaching and learning to the models already in action?

Essentially, how can anyone create a bold, innovative plan to take higher education forward in new ways unless economic constraints are lifted?

I ask this because money has become such a focus in recent years that it’s currently impossible to remove the link between HE and funding. Everything requires money, so where will it come from?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be ‘from the student’, although the truth goes much deeper and is much more complicated.

Indeed, the truth isn’t possible to tell right now. Making sense of it all will probably still be tough even when the long awaited government White Paper on the future of HE is published.

Whatever happens, new models of teaching and learning will likely be hard to find with much HE funding moving in the direction of the student.

Subject to so much criticism this week, New College for the Humanities (NCH) is not particularly different to other models already on offer. However, the price tag and celebrity catch has made it easy fodder for debating.

We are facing up to at least one aspect of the future. NCH’s yearly tuition fee of £18k is going to upset many, no matter what is on offer and how it presents itself.

Despite the controversy, however, this is just the beginning of a long for-profit march. London Met’s Malcolm Gillies says that a “fundamentally different economy [is] emerging in higher education”.

Even so, take away the question of private ventures and the university system is still set for a ride into the unknown. Can the current state of affairs in HE be used in alternative ways that continue to allow freedom of enquiry as well as a platform for students to achieve the many things they want, including (but certainly not limited to) future career prospects?

The more I consider this, the more I feel something will eventually give. My hope is that the necessary change will prove positive in the main.

And it is necessary change. On one hand, the government (among others) is pushing for change. On the other hand, critics are pushing for change in other directions.

The one thing few seem to be wishing for is that everything stays precisely the same as it currently is. And yet the HE community get constantly ribbed for resisting any type of change!

Perhaps too many things will change at once. When you alter too much at the same time:

  1. You can’t distinguish between successful moves and failures;
  2. Risks are much greater in the mid to long term, if not also the short term;
  3. Nobody is sure what direction they are facing, should be facing, or even want to be facing;
  4. The subsequent confusion can lead to much flailing about and little to show for it.

The marketisation of HE takes us into new territory, but one which doesn’t look like it can easily support genuine innovation in terms of delivery and concept. Perhaps perversely, for-profit players may be best placed to find different successes by fluke, but it’s still a long shot and will continue to be strewn with controversy. The only accurate thing to say at this point is that it’s anyone’s game.

Not that it is a game, or feels like one, of course!

With students touted as being at the heart of HE, does their growing role as ‘consumer’ bring hope or horror to the sector?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask, as I’m sure you’ve long worked out.

My next post will look at the dangers of relying too much on a ‘student as consumer’ focus.

Universities: A non-market market?

With a Browne Report and a Comprehensive Spending Review out of the way, it’s now clear to see what the future holds.

Wait, no it’s not.  The future is more clouded than ever.  Fiddlesticks.

If you’ve had any interest in Browne and the CSR, you’ll have seen plenty of commentary.  I don’t want to go over the same stuff, although I’ve made lots of notes and can post more at popular request… 😉

Instead, I’ll keep in brief.  And I’ll leave most of the words to others.

Giles H. Brown, Editor-in-Chief of HE policy journal, Perspectives, explains that universities can’t be viewed the same way as businesses:

“Research suggest tertiary education is unlikely ever to operate as a market in a way an economist would recognise (Brown 2008); we are therefore likely to remain market-like, but not a market, in the same way as we are increasingly having to be business-like, but cannot operate truly as a business.  Like it or not, we cannot strictly separate the sector from the market; we are increasingly dependent on the ‘market’, while recognising the importance of retaining some degree of autonomy from it.”

[Perspectives, Vol.14, No.3, 2010]

So how much autonomy will there be?  Times Higher Education (THE) highlights concern.  This week’s editorial stresses that Browne claims to be offering universities freedom, but actually introduces a ‘state-controlled and regulated industry‘.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published their response to the Browne Report, dismissing much of it as a serious way forward.

Then there are the concerns surrounding fees.  Prospective students be warned; if Browne’s proposals go through, there may be no real market on fees, much like now.  THE reports that most unis may have to charge around £8,000 just to get by.  This has led NUS to say the spending review informs an entire generation, “you’re on your own“.  And these possible fee rises may not even accurately factor in the natural decline in 18-21 year olds from 2012.

This may also have a knock-on effect for widening participation.  Steve Smith, President of Universities UK (UUK), explains:

“We know we are facing a demographic downturn from 2012, with a 15.6% decline in the 18- to 21-year-old age group within the decade – not the only cohort, but a major one, for student recruitment: already this year the participation rate has fallen from 41% to 39.7%.  Unless we can raise the attainment levels of 16-year-olds, the numbers coming into higher education from the lower socioeconomic groups will not increase at the pace we would like them to.”

[Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2010]

Compare this with Browne’s wish for a further 10% of students to enter higher education.  Getting a particular percentage into HE is not the point.  Widening participation isn’t about greater numbers, it’s about ensuring that those who can benefit from HE are given that chance.  Some people enter HE who would have benefited from something else and I believe just as much effort should be placed on helping these individuals.  One positive aspect of the Browne Report is its recognition that better careers advice and prospective student guidance should be given to allow greater understanding and to give individuals a better chance in making decisions that suit their individual needs.

But can we achieve these things under a market system that doesn’t necessary work like a market?

These are strange times.  Bonkers, in fact.  All of us will be affected one way or another.  And nobody really knows how yet.

But there is one certainty: No matter what your opinion is — even if you don’t care — none of us can put our head in the sand.