Students need to demand more than mere ‘value for money’

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. Megan Dunn from NUS looks at the new Framework for Partnership and why it matters to the sector.
This article is more than 5 years old

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.

2 responses to “Students need to demand more than mere ‘value for money’

  1. I definitely agree with this: “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”, but of course those rules have to come from some facet of human experience, which I think is part of what drives the ‘consumer’ versus ‘partner’ dilemma.

    The problem with comparing science degrees to sandwiches is that if HE is ‘consumed’ it would presumably be a service, not a product. Once you frame the discussion within the domain of services it becomes a whole lot more difficult to draw the clean distinctions you offer at the start. Management consultancy, financial auditors, or personal language tuition are all consumer services and all may (or may not) challenge you, change your world view and make you rethink your personal agency in a way that a non-poisonous sandwich or unobstructed cinema view is, as you point out, unlikely to. All require some level of partnership too, in the form of active cooperation, setting goals, even – in the case of language tuition – many of the same processes one might expect to see at the university.

    In fact I would say all of the things that you have noted as required for good HE are broadly applicable to many consumer services. I find it hard to imagine that there are that many advocates of the ‘student as consumer’ position that would suggest HE is akin to buying a sandwich, a cinema ticket, or a pair of jeans.

  2. Nice piece and nice response @Matt.

    My take on it is written up in an article from about 5 years ago which has attracted quite a lot of attention, including from the NUS in earlier publications, QAA and the UCU. Its called ‘The student as co‐producer: learning from public administration about the student–university relationship’ and the abstract reads:

    “The dominant metaphor/model used to characterise the relationship of the student to the university, that is, the ‘student as consumer’, is partial and not appropriate to the realities of contemporary higher education. This article suggests that co‐production, a concept drawn from the public administration literature, offers a more appropriate metaphor. In this metaphor, the student, lecturers and others who support the learning process are viewed as being engaged in a cooperative enterprise focused on the production, dissemination and application of knowledge, and on the development of learners rather than merely skilled technicians.”

    It can be found here, although if anyone can’t get access to the article, feel free to get in touch and I’ll email you a copy. My email address is: alistair.mcculloch@unisa.edu.au

    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075070802562857?journalCode=cshe20#preview

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