The student-customer is not always right

Lord Browne’s idea that student feedback surveys should shape education is a bigger shock than the proposed hike in fees.

Students in English universities face tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year from 2012, it was forecast last night as the government responded to Lord Browne’s inquiry into student finance. The government is due to announce its full response to the inquiry today. But while concerns about university access and graduate debt have been widely discussed, the educational consequences of institutions having to tout their courses to students have not received enough attention.

Lord Browne’s Independent Review into Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, published last month, appears to crystallise the position of the student as consumer within a university marketplace. The question of the level at which fees should be set has attracted most attention amongst liberal academics. The National Union of Students dubbed the plan to allow universities nearly to treble existing levels of fees ‘an outrage’. But this is not the most significant reform that Browne is proposing for the world of higher education.

A more fundamental proposed change is that universities would no longer be guaranteed a teaching budget directly from government coffers. Instead, money will come into institutions directly from students, and in proportion to the number of students recruited. Browne writes: ‘Rather than the government providing a block grant for teaching to HEIs [Higher Education Institutions], their finance now follows the student who has chosen and been admitted to study. Choice is in the hands of the student.’

The implications of this are not to be underestimated. In effect, it means that if a particular course (or, indeed, university) fails to recruit sufficient numbers of students, it will not receive enough money to remain financially viable. Unless institutions make sentimental or political decisions to keep the particular course or institution in question open, it will close. So, what gets funded depends on whatever and wherever students choose to study. As Browne says, ‘Popular HEIs will be able to expand to meet student demand. Students will be better informed about the range of options available to them. Their choices will shape the landscape of higher education.’ So, it will be crucially important for university managers to influence student choice in order to maintain market share – and therefore sustain funding streams. 

Browne expects ‘better informed’ students to ‘receive high-quality information’ which will shape their choices. So how will they access this information?

Firstly, there will be a focus on careers advice and guidance for children in schools. The problem with this, however, is that much careers advice given to school children is necessarily fairly dubious - it is very difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy what an ‘appropriate’ education route may be for any youngster. Also, mixing up higher education and careers guidance in this way cements the idea that the key aim of higher education is employability - and this before students even cross the threshold of a university.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Browne expects many potential students to make decisions based upon the evaluations of existing students or recent graduates. Much of this information will be derived from the results of the National Student Survey (NSS), which purports to measure students’ levels of satisfaction with aspects of university life. It includes feedback on the standard of teaching, assessments and library facilities, as well as the support and guidance received. So, it appears that the onus is on academics to make sure that their students are terribly satisfied and rate their courses highly in the NSS. Otherwise, recruitment levels may plummet, leading to courses and departments closing down and academics losing their jobs.

To Browne, ‘this is a surer way to drive up quality than any attempt at central planning’. But this assumes that more satisfied students are necessarily receiving a better quality education. There is little to suggest this is the case. Students may be satisfied with their university experience if they are amused, entertained and given good grades. John Henry Newman recognised this back in 1852 when he urged government ministers ‘not to say the people must be educated when, after all, you only mean amused, refreshed, soothed, put into good spirits and good humour, or kept from vicious excess’. Prophetic words indeed.

As Newman indicated, the biggest problem with posing high levels of student satisfaction as the principal outcome of education is that this is not always compatible with intellectual challenge, which is surely the real purpose of higher education. Lecturers who feel compelled to keep their students satisfied and happy may end up limiting intellectual challenges by choosing not to confront students with material they may consider to be too complex or too controversial. In short, anything that may be emotionally or intellectually unsettling could be at risk of being removed from the curriculum. This could result in lecturers self-censoring their teaching, all in order not to upset the student-customer. After all, if the customer is king, there may be no huge desire to challenge his prejudices.

The campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) argues that academics, ‘both inside and outside the classroom’, should have ‘unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive’. It is timely for members of UK academia to remind themselves of this right to academic freedom. Today, many lecturers are more nervous about offending students than university management. Offend management and you may get a rap over the knuckles but (hopefully) have your colleagues or a union behind you for support. Offend students, however, and you could lose your job.

AFAF also suggests ‘that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom [to question and test received wisdom] by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal’. Ironically, with lecturers who are all too ready to self-censor in the spirit of keeping students happy there would be no need for institutions to play such a heavy-handed role.

These institutional and academic fears are largely misplaced. Those working in universities need to be less fearful and to have higher expectations of what their students can tolerate. Most students I’ve come across are not offended by discussing controversial topics and actually relish the opportunity to engage with lecturers in heated debate. Many students, even though they’re paying high fees, still embark upon higher education because of some spark of interest in a particular subject and a desire to learn more. It seems to me that there are only three things many students do actually find offensive: the assumption that they are customers purchasing a degree product; that they should only be interested in what will make them employable; and that they need to be protected from being offended.

Joanna Williams is a lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice at the University of Kent.  She writes here in a personal capacity.

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