When I buy a cinema ticket, a pair of jeans or a sandwich I have some basic expectations. I expect to be able to see the screen, that the jeans won’t fall apart on the first wash and that my sandwich will not poison me. I don’t, however, expect any of those products to seriously challenge me, or change how I see the world, or make me rethink the scope of my personal agency. This, in a nutshell, is why higher education is different from a consumer product.
This week, together with Universities UK, NUS is publishing a report of a review of student charters in England, undertaken at the request of the former Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and with the continued support of the current Minister, Greg Clark. We have titled our report A Framework for Partnership with Students in recognition that for students to be successful in higher education both institutions and students must play their part. Students are partners in higher education because of the efforts they put into their own learning and because our students’ unions representation and student-led activity systems make it possible for students to contribute to forging an engaging and dynamic learning environment.
But this focus on students’ efforts and responsibilities can shift attention away from the responsibilities of higher education providers, regulators and government to ensure students are protected from exploitation and assured of a level of quality in provision of learning and teaching resources to enable them to put the effort into their learning. The findings of last week’s Which? report and the current consultation of the Competition and Markets Authority demonstrate that significant numbers of students are in danger of being held back from achieving in their learning by changes to course schedules or location, failure to publish or absorb additional course costs or unnecessarily drawn out complaints procedures.
Partnership suggests that each party should have a clear idea of their rights and responsibilities, but students are still expected to sign up to vast bodies of institutional policy and codes of practice without even the assurance that if their provider decides to close that course they will be able to complete or be offered an adequate alternative.
Part of the problem is that the debate between ‘students as consumers’ and ‘students as partners’ has become polarised and one-dimensional when a level of nuance would be more likely to help students navigate the complexities of higher education. A useful first step would be agreeing to consider higher education as distinctive enough to require its own set of norms and codes to govern the relationship between students and providers. That students will be covered under the forthcoming Consumer Rights Act is likely to offer students some further protections but the direct implications for students’ specific entitlements are poorly understood and will in all probability need to be worked out in the courts, which is hardly in the interests of students.
Students need some backstop protections and guarantees to ensure they are not exploited or disadvantaged by choosing to enter higher education. These should include validated and accurate public information about courses (including costs), transparency of terms in student contracts, formal protections in case of course closure or institutional failure, and right to free, independent redress for complaints. The precise technical nature of these arrangements may be up for debate but they are fundamental safeguards for students and, where absent, create a risk for the reputation of institutions and UK higher education as a whole.
Furthermore, students need a good quality of provision in order to learn, to the extent that learning involves students mobilising resources that are provided by their institution of study such as teaching, academic support, library and IT infrastructure and student services. What quality may look like and how it should be assessed and reported is ultimately the product of a social consensus, not an absolute. Therefore it is clear that students, as stakeholders of the system, have an important role in assessing the quality of their learning experience and in contributing to improving course and institutional quality.
But to go even further, in order to learn, to really learn, in the way that enables you to live the promise of higher education, students need sound relationships with academics and peers, a feeling of belonging and being included no matter their background, academic challenge, to have a sense of themselves as changing and developing individuals and support to build the confidence to express themselves. You cannot assess these things through a lens of value for money. You might as well try to set a monetary value on the time your friends and family spend with you.
I would like to believe that higher education providers want to offer a high quality experience because they want to help their students to learn, not merely because students are paying. Which is why students need to be supported to see themselves as partners in learning and in shaping their learning environment. But for students to be truly partners in learning they need to be able to trust the system to have their backs.