A number of studies have suggested that, as a result of processes of marketisation in higher education across Europe, students have come to behave—and to be seen—as customers.
However, many of these claims have been made based on a policy-level analysis, or an empirical examination of the experiences of students in England, where marketisation is strongly entrenched in the system. Even in the case of England, some empirical studies have challenged the view that just because students pay high tuition fees, they will develop a consumerist identity and orientation to higher education.
Compared to England, and many other European countries, marketisation is less firmly established in the HE sector in Spain, and policy and institutional narratives in Spain present the sector as being relatively unmarketised. So when my colleagues and I conducted interviews with university staff and students in Spain—as part of the Eurostudents project, a comparative study of higher education students in six European countries (Spain, Poland, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, England)—we were intrigued to find that most felt that the experience of being a student had been dramatically and problematically transformed by marketisation. Indeed, apart from in England, we did not encounter such strong narratives of marketisation in any of the other countries in our sample.
So why did Spanish university staff, and Spanish students themselves, feel that students’ lives had been transformed by marketisation? In our research, through an exploration of Spanish staff and student perspectives, we attempted to trace how the manner in which marketisation is experienced on the ground may be mediated by a number of factors, including:
- perceptions about the quality of educational provision and the labour market rewards of a degree
- the manner in which the private cost of education (if any) is borne by students
- and the extent to which marketisation may have become normalised in a country’s higher education system.
Investors, workers, and customers – instead of citizens and learners
Between 2017 and 2018, we interviewed 12 staff members and conducted focus groups with a total of 55 students across three universities in Spain: two public universities and one private, located in different parts of the country. According to both staff and students, as a result of marketisation, Spanish students had been forced to take on the following roles: financial investors in their education, student-workers, and customers. Staff members presented this transformation as being, at least partially, a temporal one, with references being made to austerity-related budget cuts following the financial crisis. However, both staff and students also discussed this transformation as a move away from an ideal or from the roles they felt students ought to be playing – as citizens making use of their right to free higher education, and dedicated learners.
Staff and students lamented that, as a result of funding cuts, students were being forced to become financial investors in their education. As one student exclaimed:
I [shouldn’t] have to pay for this, […] I should have the right to be educated!
Making students take on the role of financial investors in their education was also discussed as leading to HE becoming a privilege accessible only to a minority.
The private cost of education was also described as forcing many students (particularly those at public universities and those from working-class backgrounds) to become student-workers who divided their time between studies and paid work. Students discussed working alongside studying as being an infringement of the experience of being a student, while staff stressed the adverse impact this had on students’ academic performance.
According to staff, the fact that universities were forced to view students as an income source had led to the emergence of a “customer service” culture within universities. For instance, staff felt that universities were inviting students to see themselves as customers through creating systems to allow them to evaluate their education and make complaints.
A large number of the students we interviewed—including almost all of those studying at the two public universities in our sample—readily (albeit indignantly) identified as being customers because they were paying tuition fees. Strikingly, however, except among the students at the private university in our sample, there was a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the quality of education and pessimism about the labour market outcomes of having a degree, and students did not describe feeling that they were being served and catered to through a “customer service” culture of the kind discussed in staff interviews.
Are Spanish students customers?
Our data suggest that a combination of several factors might be contributing to why staff and students in Spain experienced higher education in the country to have been transformed to such a great extent by marketisation (and why we encountered stronger narratives about marketisation in Spain than in most other countries in our study).
The way in which the private cost of higher education is borne by students and their families appears to play an important role. Of the countries in our sample, tuition fees or another form of payment were charged by higher education institutions in three countries: England, Ireland and Spain. The tuition fees charged by Spanish universities are much lower than those charged by English universities and also less substantial than the “student contribution” charged by Irish universities. Nevertheless, unlike in England (which has an established system of student loans allowing for deferred fee payment) or Ireland (where student loans and need-based grants are available to a large proportion of the student population), Spanish students must pay their fees upfront. This means that they and their families experience a more immediate financial burden.
In Spain, more than any other country in our sample, we encountered a strong sense of dissatisfaction among public university students with the quality of education they were receiving, and pessimism from both students and staff about the labour market outcomes associated with having a degree. Indeed, at the time of data collection (2017-2018), Spain had the highest rate of graduate unemployment of all the countries in our study. This likely contributed to staff and students problematising the private cost of education and foregrounding how students had been transformed into customers.
Precisely because marketisation is relatively less firmly established in the Spanish HE system may explain why it seems to have contributed to staff and students’ perceptions of it defining how the education system operated. In England, where market reforms impacting the functioning of the education system are entrenched, ideas associated with marketisation may have become so normalised that they are not worthy of comment. In Spain, in contrast, where marketisation has not been normalised in this way, the staff and students we interviewed appeared to be very sensitive to what they perceived to be moves towards marketisation.
You can read about this research in more detail here.