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Why students don’t always win as consumers

With student satisfaction being touted as a big driver of HE in the future, how does the student experience come into play?

The term ‘student experience’ means a great many things. Each experience is unique, as well as each person’s definition.

Individual definitions are likely to change too. If I ask you what experience you are looking for as a Fresher, your answers then are bound to be different once you’re in your final year.

photo by Cesar Augusto Serna Sz

photo by Cesar Augusto Serna Sz

University of Hertfordshire vice-chancellor, Quintin McKellar, recently highlighted his concern that students don’t necessarily think of education when considering the ‘student experience’.

And after I read the book, “The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer“, a consumer model of HE is not as clear cut as putting students in charge and allowing the market to work wonderfully from it. This post features some of the key details I discovered in the book.

The ‘student as consumer’ mentality brings about instability, as Joanna Williams explains:

“With a diminished sense of their subjectivity, students may not have such a firm belief in themselves as resilient, capable actors and instead might see themselves as vulnerable, fragile and in need of support.” [p.178]

Student experience simply cannot be measured. You can attempt to weigh things up yourself, but it’s hard to describe those years to anyone else. And, as Jones-Devitt & Samiei suggest, “what cannot be easily measured is often valued as worthless.” [p.96]

But wait… The student experience is valued more than ever. Are the authors incorrect in their statement? No. There is still great discomfort when something cannot be quantified satisfactorily.

However, the desire to find a measure of student experience outweighs the thought that it is worthless. The thinking goes that we must be able to measure quality of experience, because it does hold worth.

Attempts to measure satisfaction exist, but they cannot provide a complete picture. For instance, the National Student Survey acts as a guide, not an unquestionable truth.

For an institution, learning must be key to student experience. Without learning as a scaffold to everything else, the term ‘higher education’ might as well be meaningless:

“Quality must not be jettisoned for other institutional priorities – since pedagogically speaking there can be no other greater priority for a university. Put another way, there is no point in growth, or in more ‘market share’ of applicants, or brighter cafeterias, or higher league table positions, unless such things transparently feed into enhancing this ‘Archimedean-like’ point.” [Scullion, Molesworth, Nixon – p.234]

Academic quality and student satisfaction are important regardless of consumer culture. A lovely, new coffee shop may be a great addition on campus, but it can’t hold all aspects of experience together. If the coffee shop gave you chocolate sprinkles without the drink underneath, you’d be confused. Similarly, higher education must go beyond chocolate sprinkles.

Quality isn’t the only issue, though. If a course is demanding and a great challenge to you as a student, institutions fear that satisfaction will drop. Students, understandably, seek out the easiest routes in their education.

But the ‘easiest route’ doesn’t equal the route where least work and learning takes place. These two ideas are easily confused. I’ve been guilty of it. Most of us are from time to time.

Of course we would prefer the least cumbersome route. Challenging, yes. But not a pointless slog or unreasonable shortcut.

Tuition fees do not ensure someone receives a degree as a matter of course. We frown on individuals who pay money for fake certificates and qualifications from non-existent universities. The route is easy, but it’s not valid.

Nevertheless, institutions are caught between a rock and a hard place. Give too much choice and learning suffers. Give too little choice and there’s uproar:

“[If universities] limit choice (as students claim to want), but in doing so aim for ‘compulsory’ challenge, complexity and difficulty, they are likely to see increased student dissatisfaction and, within the logic of the marketplace, find their customers going elsewhere. Attractive educational choice for students is choice that makes things easy or pleasant, but attractive choice for education is choice that requires reflection, complexity, challenge and therefore often the sort of dissonance and angst that good marketing usually works hard to eliminate.” [Nixon, Scullion, Molesworth – pp.206/7]

Long-term learning should be a joy, with some necessary chores thrown in. This would be a reasonable expectation. The mindset doesn’t come naturally though. Don’t think it’s your fault as a student, though. We are consumers, after all:

“Other consumerist thinking was evident in students’ descriptions of their experiences. Units where there was an expectation of reading, or seminar preparation were often rejected in favour of those that were perceived as allowing students to do ‘fun things’, where ‘fun’ often meant ‘things I can do easily’, or especially tasks that require little effort.” [Nixon, Scullion, Molesworth – p.204]

Consumer thinking goes beyond academia. When questioned about careers after university, “[students said] that it wasn’t really the elements of a job that were the basis for any fantasy of the future, but rather the lifestyle that a job might allow”. [Haywood, Jenkins, Molesworth – p.189]

We are sold dreams daily. There is nothing new about this. Why should this be any different in HE? Universities can play on students living a particular lifestyle by selling a dream institution. Look at the shiny prospectus. See the smiling faces, the colourful campus, the relaxed spaces for you to sit back and feel like you belong. You’ll fit in so well that you’ll never want to leave…

When I first saw the fake advert above, I was amused. Watching it now, I can’t help thinking how prospective students could easily be led toward choices that won’t help in the long run. It’s a vicious circle:

“HEIs may find it easier to sell a lifestyle that students desire than to promote a desire to study a complex subject in depth or to undertake the sort of intellectual challenge that we might hope a degree represents.” [Haywood, Jenkins, Molesworth – p.193]

Clarity from the outset would benefit everyone. But that’s not easy. As I’ve already mentioned, institutions aren’t able to communicate the hard work required without expecting a dent in student satisfaction. Yet, to make the most of any experience, we need to challenge ourselves. We need to take responsibility for our actions. Having a laugh and having it easy cannot lead to any worthwhile progression, whatever your reason behind going to university.

Therefore, clarity requires honesty:

“…lecturers could communicate to students the expectation that studying for a degree will be challenging, require considerable effort and may (indeed should) lead to a questioning of assumptions and prior knowledge – rather than immediate satisfaction.” [Williams – p.181]

How can that be achieved effectively? And how far can it be taken? For instance, can guarantees be given that promise a solid student experience? Even after you cast aside the subjective nature of such an experience, there are flaws. When McCollough and Gremler (1999) issued a written guarantee to half the students on a course and gave no such guarantee to the other half, students without the guarantee ended up reporting higher satisfaction! Maringe explains further:

“This may have been because those who received guarantees had higher expectations of the course than those who did not receive any written guarantees. In addition, both groups reported that high quality instruction was the most important expectation for a productive HE experience. There is thus a sense in which contracts in their known right do not deliver quality per se.” [pp.148/9]

An effective way to create honest enthusiasm is to give students further involvement, even in research terms. With the right mindset, it’s possible to foster commitment and encourage the desire to do more work than is necessary. The longer the mindset remains stuck at one of necessary study before the world of work, the longer the false idea of the ‘easiest route’ remains.

The ‘student as consumer’ model is far from clear cut. If you want to get a lowdown on the ups and downs, I recommend you grab a copy of “The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer“.

Consumer culture is growing. It cannot be ignored, neither should it be celebrated without further exploration. For the sake of staff, students, graduates, prospective students, and even the wider community, it is crucial to take on board the advantages and pitfalls of this model in order to create a stronger future for not only HE, but also the people it serves.

Putting students at the centre of HE thinking

Nobody knows precisely what they want and exactly how to get it.

If you’re lucky, you can get close. But life isn’t exact. Things change. You change.

And we learn. University allows you to discover new things, find out more about your subject, and find out more about yourself. At least, that’s a big part of what it should bring.

Looking to the future (photo by ckaroli)

Looking to the future (photo by ckaroli)

From this perspective, you may have a good idea about what you would like to experience and what is necessary to move you forward in the ways you wish. But how that can be achieved and whether everything will fit into place perfectly isn’t a given. There is no exact science, however much you prepare.

Earlier this week, I attended the launch of a new book about the future of higher education, “Blue Skies”. I wrote a chapter for it, about the wonder of contradiction in HE. Yay!

Something that struck me at the launch event was just how much students were at the centre of the discussion. A good thing, since they are a huge part of higher education…

Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK, said that the National Student Survey is being featured more highly and being used more prominently throughout the HE sector. Universities Minister, David Willetts, agreed and suggested that students are being put in a better position to control where money will go. By voting with their feet, students will make the calls.

Willetts further cements this point in Times Higher Education:

“The critics may dismiss this as mere consumerism. I call it harnessing the power of the student to put the classic values of excellent teaching centre stage once again.”

As a soundbite, this is impressive. As a reality, it is more complicated. Nevertheless, the power of the student can still be harnessed.

You can, and should, form a huge part of what goes on in terms of teaching, learning, research, and the future. In my chapter of the book, I champion the work of “Student as Producer” at the University of Lincoln, which tackles effective student action head-on.

There is no doubt, therefore, that students do have power to make effective change. Anybody has that power given the right circumstances.

Yet surely this power isn’t best actioned by voting with feet and calling a consumer revolution based on fees and a general sense of entitlement, even if the two issues require great consideration.

Frank Furedi puts this far better than I could:

“From a Socratic perspective the very term ‘student satisfaction’ is an irrational one. Why? Because students need to be placed under intellectual pressure, challenged to experience the intensity of problem solving. Such an engagement does not always promote customer satisfaction. Not a few individuals at the receiving end of a Socratic dialogue felt provoked and angry. Today, this old philosopher would not rank very high in a student satisfaction survey. So the question worth asking is ‘ought the satisfaction of the student customer be one of the central objectives of the university?’ From the perspective of the development of a stimulating and creative academic life, the answer must be a resounding NO! The moment that students begin to regard themselves as customers of academic education, their intellectual development is likely to be compromised. Degrees can be bought; an understanding of a discipline cannot.” [Source]

Conflict exists. But does it have to be this way?

Imagine if we lived in an age where fees didn’t exist. A time in which HE was fully funded by the state.

[I know that might be difficult, even hurtful, to consider, but hopefully you’ll get over it…]

If you didn’t have to pay fees, I’m guessing you’d still expect a certain amount of satisfaction from your course. It’s probably reasonable to assume you would not appreciate poorly communicated lectures, a lack of good learning resources, and a run-down atmosphere.

Undergraduate education can still be student centred. But it can be done in ways we have not yet imagined.

David Willetts wants better information given to prospective students. That’s great news. Obviously.

Now we need to carefully consider what information is best placed to help an increasingly diverse set of people choose courses that will work for their individual circumstances.

Nothing can be perfect, but that’s no reason to stop thinking about it altogether.

The chapter following mine in the new book is by former FT columnist, Stefan Stern. He makes a great point that may have been lost over the years:

“…what I shall tell my children in due course is that university is there for them to deepen their love of a subject and to develop as individuals. Job prospects, employability skills and building networks of ‘contacts’, must be a secondary or even tertiary concern. Study something that fascinates you, and worry about the future later on.” [Source]

Is now the right time to get back to learning for the sake of learning? Take pride in your work. Enjoy what you do. Get excited by education in the same way you treat your social life. We won’t be able to irradicate ‘Essay Hell’, but I firmly believe in the possibility that we can easily increase a genuine ‘Care for Coursework’.

What say you? Is this possible? What role should students play for the future of HE?