Universities: the student-customer is not always right

Who in their right mind would pay £27,000 for a degree? Well, not one-in-three UK students, if a Higher Education Policy Institute survey published this week is to be believed. That many students should feel this way should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been near a university recently.

Small armies of government ministers, school teachers, outreach workers, widening-participation officers, careers advisers and lecturers have built careers off the back of telling young people university is all about them. Students are encouraged to think like consumers, to shop around for the best product, and to give feedback on the level of service they’ve received. They’re told to expect a satisfactory ‘student experience’ and to complain when it’s not forthcoming. Having been led to believe they’re customers, and that the customer is always right, perhaps the only surprise from the survey is that two-in-three students still think university does represent value for money.

Actually, I think students have some grounds for complaint. The survey shows that first- and second-year undergraduates enjoyed, on average, 14.2 hours of teaching each week during term time, and completed a minuscule 14.3 hours of private study on top. These statistics hide huge variations. So while some students studying medicine are working a great deal more than 28.5 hours a week, others are expected to do far less.

The survey was published on the same day as a history professor from the University of Birkbeck warned that students are graduating without having read a relevant book from cover to cover. Ironically, one reason for academics expecting so little, even entering into ‘disengagement pacts’ with their students, is a fear that a demanding workload and real intellectual challenges will result in poor end-of-course evaluation scores and dissatisfied students. But lecturers need to toughen up; wanting to keep the customers happy is really no excuse for low expectations.

For students, there’s far more than their loans at stake here. University is not the same as school and, no matter what students have been led to believe, the final responsibility for their learning rests solely on them. There’s no entitlement to a degree, no matter how much money changes hands. Regardless of how big or infrequent classes might be, if students don’t read a book all the way through, don’t go to the library, or don’t turn up for a lecture then they will lose far more than money. University is neither a holiday camp nor a job-training centre. Being a student is about struggling to engage with knowledge. While lecturers can teach, stimulate, encourage and expect a great deal, the only people who can do the learning are the students themselves.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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