student as consumer

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

keep-consumer-attitudes-away

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.

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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.

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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!

Definitions, Markets, and Moving Beyond the ‘University’

Some concepts are so huge that they can end up meaning little in isolation. Terms like ‘the student’ and ‘the university’ are a good example. That’s why we’re unlikely to see these terms disappear.

But might we see them in a very different light as time goes on? How definitions change is up to all of us. What do you see going beyond the university?

If you’re stuck for ideas, check out what Richard Hall has to say about moving beyond the university. Take a look at Ronald Barnett’s book, “Being A University“. Read the Times Higher Education piece on a cooperative university in Spain. There’s plenty to chew over and surely much more to come.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

The university as it currently is may not be what everyone wants to keep alive. For some, it emulates the market too much. For others, not enough. Whatever your view, much concern rests in the ability to see universities survive in a meaningful way.

I doubt the idea of the university will simply be replaced with a form of learning and development that is not at all based in higher education. But don’t rule out drastic alterations on many other levels, especially if limited views are applied to complex matters. We’re still in danger that use of the term ‘university’ could be relaxed.

This comes at a time when market terms and analogies are being thrust upon higher education. And when reality proves rather different to what was initially envisaged, the sector continues to undergo tweaking. Just consider the clearing and adjustment process over the last couple of years, as well as moves such as Birmingham’s choice to award unconditional offers to 1,000 applicants.

Despite increasing marketisation of HE, how much of a market is there? Some desire it more than others. If we continue to head in this direction, will aspects of marketisation and customer relations become ever more interchangeable? Will students and teachers “dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation”? Will we remain in a confusing soup, or is something more definitive around the corner? What will happen?

Students don’t have an easy choice to transfer to another university or get their money back for a disappointing or inappropriate course. Giving students the label ‘consumer’ is not helpful. Jim Dickinson says that students should not be labelled as if they can only be ‘one of two types’. Learner or consumer? Why not both? Why not anything else? A consumer is not the opposite of a learner, so why set arguments up as an either/or?

I guess it’s in part because simplifications like this are easy to digest and discuss. But the devil, as ever, is in the detail. Limited views are great for soundbites, less useful for policy.

Distinctions are required otherwise the ‘student’ is erroneously deemed two-dimensional. Speaking of which, how distinct is a university?

Maxxim Consulting refers to four ‘distinct groups’ of HEIs with a little overlap and many differences. To apply a blanket market treatment to them is, therefore, unhelpful. The question is, can institutions enhance themselves and develop enough in distinctive attributes under current frameworks? Anything is possible to an extent, but that doesn’t mean they can do ‘enough’. That’s the key word in my view. Slightly different isn’t distinctive enough. Neither is it necessarily there for the benefit of the students they serve.

The final paragraph of the Maxxim Consulting report makes an interesting point:

“The student leadership also has a key part to play as the all-important ‘voice of the consumer’.”

Back to that word ‘consumer’. It wasn’t going to take long for the term to crop up again. If universities are struggling to find a distinctive edge, why should the student be allowed?

In terms of higher education, everyone should be distinct, everything should be distinct, and HE should fuel a thriving to be distinct. Not unique in every possible way, but distinguishable.

This is where the market model is assumed to help achieve great things. Yet a report by CFE and Edge Hill University (“The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation“) has this to say:

“The perceived ‘marketisation’ of HE and increased competition between institutions could mitigate against the prioritisation of collaborative activities and/or activities that derive benefits for the wider sector and policy objectives, such as early interventions in schools.” – p.5

Less collaboration, less benefit to policy, less early years intervention… Ouch.

Moving beyond the university is anything but simple. For every decision in the name of strident consumer action and market forces, there are implications behind the scenes that can contradict all the good intentions. That’s if you assume all intentions to be good. And thus starts yet another debate.

Though it is hard to frame a simple definition to the term ‘university’, this must be attempted before anyone can move beyond it. Stefan Collini tackled this in his book, “What Are Universities For?

Markets require an element of understanding or appreciation by consumers (whoever they are in each case) in order to allow the market to continue operating. Without a market, there is no market, naturally. With this in mind, Collini makes a good point regarding the wider concept of the university:

“Part of the problem may be that while universities are spectacularly good at producing new forms of understanding, they are not always very good at explaining what they are doing when they do this.” – p.89

In addition, Collini does not see a genuine market:

“…the so-called ‘market’ is in practice a rigged framework (benevolently rigged, for the most part) which is periodically adjusted if there is expression of one or another form of discontent with existing provision.” – p.105

There seems no easy way to untangle this. There is no start point or end point. Without a solid presence, it is hard to noticably move beyond anything.

One way to move beyond may be by stealth. Martin McQuillan explains, using Collini’s book once more:

“As [Collini] points out the accelerated growth and complexity of higher education in the UK means that there is no point in its history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that can be reasonably described as the normal state of things.  He is not in favour of a fixed idea of what a university is but rather recognises the importance of a rainbow sector that is in turn sensitive to the needs of local communities and the nation state that funds it.”

All of this suggests that we, both as individuals and collectives, can work to bring our ideas and ideals of the university closer to a reality. In recognising this ‘rainbow sector’, diversity and distinctiveness should be championed as a way forward to benefit local, national and international viewpoints.

We still don’t have a clear explanation how to achieve this. But diversity promotes more than one answer. The ‘university’ and the ‘student’ are concepts without a single definition. Which definitions do you wish to move beyond, which do you wish to change within, and which do you wish to keep as is?

Welcome to the multitude.

Is University Worth £9,000 a Year?

The Telegraph recently asked students if their first year was worth £9,000.

This type of question is hard to answer at such an early stage. Wait until the end of the degree and answers won’t be much clearer then.

Value doesn’t conclude at the end of an academic year. Nor does it conclude when you finish studying.

In the nature of ‘students as consumers’, imagine buying a brand new car. After you’ve traveled on your first petrol tank worth of fuel, could you say if the car was worth the price? What about after one year of driving it?

The questions seem confused. How do you know if the car is worth it? Value doesn’t conclude until the car is run into the ground, you sell it, or it’s written off. Only when you put all the factors together can you get a reasonable assessment of value.

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

For a degree, value is even harder to assess. No wonder there’s so much discussion around it!

The Telegraph states, “58.4 per cent felt their first year wasn’t worth the £9000”. The problem is in understanding why. The answer is based on a general feeling. Some students will be offended paying a penny for their pursuit of education, while others will sense value in the long haul, whatever the cost.

Neither are necessarily right or wrong. Limited knowledge of what’s to come in their future (and in the wider world) prevents anyone from giving an accurate account of value. Motivation drives how you feel about many things, including value. But motivation is a complicated issue. There is no easy answer.

One opinion for poor value for money in the first year is that it doesn’t count academically.

This ‘first year doesn’t count’ argument is a false trail. Fresher year counts beyond grades. If nothing else, it acts to strengthen your academic work, which should help grades in later years. A direct correlation between fees and grades is jarring. Understandable, yes, but still jarring.

Contact time is another false trail. A joint study by HEPI and Which?, reports on student experiences, including contact time and the differences between institutions, even for the same subject. But there are many reasons why contact time isn’t just about hours. And neither should that be the only factor when looking at value.

It’s easy to boil the university experience down to this: a path toward a degree.

But the reality is complicated, just like motivation. You (hopefully) end up with a degree at the end of your time, but is that the only value worth attaching to the fee? If so, what price are you willing to pay for a degree and why?

There are arguments against buying into a university experience altogether. Despite those reasons, some will still find great value in HE. My motivation is not yours. Your motivation is not anyone else’s.

Is £9k worth it each year? Can you give a reasonable answer?

A simple question of value is far from simple to answer amid all the confusion. It makes little sense to view university within the confines of market competition.

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.