When the present English tuition fee regime was being planned, there were plenty of voices from inside universities warning that it would change the nature of the relationship between students and their universities for the worse. Students would, it was feared, become customers rather than partners in an academic enterprise.
Indeed, this change was what the Government’s 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, seemed to look forward to: “Better informed students will take their custom to the places offering good value for money” (para 2.24) – in other words, they will act like customers. Has this happened?
Recent research which we’ve undertaken at the UCL Institute of Education, on behalf of the Higher Education Academy shows that in a sample of English universities, to a substantial extent, students have indeed started to act like ‘customers’.
There has been a change in the way higher education is sold to young people and in student attitudes towards the benefits they expect from it. An increasing number of students expect that their university will deliver not only a good education but also a good job. In the past they may have hoped for such a job once they graduated. But today, for many students, a well-paid graduate occupation is integral to a good student experience. There appears to be a new informal contract between some students and their universities that risks emphasising one aspect of higher education – employability – over all others.
Increased emphasis on employability by both students and institutions is partly the result of a tighter graduate labour market and partly because of the growing importance of league tables, and the fact that many of these now include data on where graduates end up. And these data form part of the Key Information Sets, one tool used by university marketeers to attract students and to help them make informed decisions about what and where to study. But the importance of producing employable graduates also underpins the government’s funding policy, because graduates must pay off their loans, and so graduation needs to guarantee highly paid employment.
Indeed, we think that we have identified a mutually reinforcing spiral of expectations. We found that higher fees and the marketisation of higher education seem to have persuaded many higher education managers to regard students as consumers, particularly in the non-research-intensive institutions. This had driven universities to make wide-ranging changes to maintain their competitive position. In turn, this was encouraging students to view themselves as paying customers. And we found the new emphasis on employability, which was strongest at the less selective institutions but still striking across the board, was a direct response to student demands.
Institutions of all types had introduced a range of programmes to help graduates get jobs, including emphasising employer demands, offering advice services and placements, and allowing graduates to use the careers service some years after graduating. Graduate destination data, once barely glanced at in some institutions, was now intensively analysed at senior management level.
While these are all good and important things to do, the danger lies in students viewing decent employment as a guaranteed outcome of a university education. This is especially problematic when we all know that the graduate labour market is increasingly differentiated. Students need to know that whether or not they are going to get the fabulous job paying a big salary that they expect will depend on what they have studied, where they have studied it, and how well they have done.
We found the recent changes in the English higher education sector had also changed institutional priorities and cultures in other ways – not all of them good.
Competition had caused an expansion in marketing, and in the number of staff employed in marketing roles. There had also been an increase in capital spending and a danger of capital expenditure escalating between institutions keen that their facilities should not lag behind those of a nearby competitor. Again, although spending on marketing and facilities can bring clear benefits to students, much of what is spent in these areas may have little direct impact on the student learning experience. Worse, spending on impressive capital projects may replace spending on staff or technology which do directly help students learn.
Treating students as customers when it comes to the kinds of facilities on offer on campus and how their service needs are met seems entirely justified, especially when they are paying £9,000 annual tuition fees. But it is not always easy to differentiate between how they should be treated in the refectory and how they should be treated in the classroom. The notion of engaging students in their learning, and of the co-production of knowledge between staff and students, is a very different model to the client-contractor. Yet there is a danger for customer-related changes in non-academic areas to bleed across into academic areas. The emphasis has come to be on student wants rather than their needs.
But what do students both want and need? Primarily, they want exciting lectures, effective staff and involvement in their own education. Yet institutions seem to be in danger of forgetting this. Some may have become confused about their core business, which is teaching, learning and research. Giving students a good time is part of that. Preparing young people for the labour market is part of that too, as is giving them a qualification that will give them a leg up the employment ladder and will signal to employers that they have reached a certain standard. But employability should not be at the heart of the higher education experience.