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Balancing power in the market

With the arrival of the Competition and Markets Authority to the higher education sector, debates about consumerism, regulation and the role of students and their institutions have intensified. In this piece, Jim Dickinson looks at power and the balance set between students, academics and institutions. Jim asks if this question of power is being left out of the debate and offers a different way to look at the work of the CMA and the debates around their intervention.
This article is more than 9 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the TUC, was on Radio 4 recently trying to justify trade unions in the modern age against the usual critiques of falling membership, clunky democracy and the unpleasant ‘male and pale’ grandstanding of mass industrial relations.

We’ve got to remember why unions were formed. Power. Individual workers don’t have any power when facing a large employer over bullying, or pay, or holidays, and unions are there to tip those scales a bit.

This is interesting because we tend not to use power or power relations when thinking through the students as partners argument. Power is almost taboo. In the partnership analogy no-one would need to tip the scales, because students and their HEIs are balanced partners, neither of whom would ever dream of exploiting or hurting or manipulating the other – at least not intentionally.

But there’s a problem with that set of assumptions. Every time someone tries to tip the scales back with some additional protections for students, they get told they don’t understand, get accused by the sector of consumerism and are sent back to their box.

Partners and co-creators

I’ve now lost count of the number of sector influential that argue that students are partners in and co-creators of education – and that this concept is somehow diametrically opposed to consumerist protection legislation that treats degrees like washing machines and VCRs.

Back in May the newly formed Competition and Markets Authority announced that they would be undertaking work to assess the extent to which practices of choice and competition may affect students, and simultaneously announced that it would work with, and through, stakeholders to inform the design of a regulatory regime which can better contribute to maximising the potential benefits of choice and competition.

These are the bits of work that have set hares running, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of why they’re poking about in HE. Their work last year found:

  • a) students not being given information to enable them to choose the most appropriate course and institution
  • b) problematic practices such as dropping parts of courses and/or hikes to fees after enrolment
  • c) slow and inaccessible complaints procedures
  • d) lack of arrangements should a university or course close

Set aside the oft-repeated idea that the CMA is unable to tell its HE goods from its Dixons TVs. Those complaining about this being consumerist, unwelcome and interfering are powerful people.

They run powerful institutions. And their argument is that the powerless – individual international students that find their fees hiked by £2k mid programme, or students that find the modules they enrolled for canned in a series of cuts – shouldn’t be given more power.

The HEI is a single, massive, corporate body. It sits in judgment over a students’ future by the allocation and validation of marks. If an HEI doesn’t mean to exploit or bully – it will at least always seek to defend itself if one of its number gets something wrong or is complained about.

And when the defence comes from an apparatus of a large well-funded office, with highly paid officials and a legal firm on retainer, it seems to me that it is a source of power that should be balanced.

Does that mean that students can’t work in partnership?

The most baffling bit of all this is the idea, propagated by senior sector people, that we might end up in a bizarre duality where students are partners in the academic enterprise during their studies but, around them, they have protective measures if they don’t get what they want.

If they don’t get what they want. Like to have the same fee for the duration of their course. Or the thing they were solemnly promised on an open day.

Do consumer protections sometimes get exploited? Yes. Might a minority of students attempt to use them to get a degree they don’t deserve? Yes. Is that a reason to avoid implementing them? Hardly.

But it’s the repeated white goods metaphor that really gets my goat.

What people need to understand, they all say, is that a degree is not like buying a microwave in Argos. Well in some ways it is. You hand over some money on the basis of what you see in the catalogue (prospectus) and if it’s not as advertised you need some recompense.

And to the extent to which it’s not, students aren’t daft. 99% of them get that they are not buying a degree any more than one buys weight loss in Argos – we buy fitness equipment in Argos, that with some effort may lead to weight loss.

Who are students in partnership with?

But all of this leads us, I think, somewhere else again. The problem with the students-institutions partnership model is that it posits academics automatically in the same body as the HEI, a model that swiftly comes unstuck in industrial disputes – when students and lecturers often cling to each other around a Marxist model of them as labour versus the university as capital.

Perhaps students aren’t in partnership with their university at all. Perhaps the £9k fee is paying for the HEI to act as a kind of cupid character – to cause a partnership between student and teacher and to run a set of facilities that support the fostering of that partnership.

Would that represent a bizarre duality? Maybe. Or perhaps that triangle of HEI as cupid, with consumer rights and students unions helping to tip the power balance when required – might mean imaging something different altogether.

How about a perfect duality where we facilitate treating our students and our academics as equal partners in the academic enterprise during their studies and, around them, they have protective measures which they can deploy if HEIs fail to live up to their promised expectations.

Sounds OK to me. And the good news for students? Sounds OK to the Competition and Markets authority, too.

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