Guest blogger: How students become consumers of higher education

Dr. Joanna Williams
(University of Kent, UK)

In this post, dr Joanna Williams from University of Kent (UK) argues that there is a complex process by which students adopt a consumer perspective to higher education, and it is not merely tuition fees that contribute to this. 

The entry draws on her recent book “Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought“, London: Bloomsbury. 

Recent news reports suggest the true cost of a university education for English students may be close to £100,000. It is perhaps not surprising then that students are increasingly described as ‘consumers’ of higher education (HE) (see Brown: 2011 and Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion: 2011). In Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought I argue that the payment of university tuition fees (currently £9000 each year for English students) is a symptom rather than a cause of students being considered as consumers. Students are constructed as consumers both before entering HE and while at university by a range of government policies and institutional practices, many of which pre-date tuition fees paid by individual students. Indeed, students were first referred to as ‘customers’ of HE in government publicity in 1993, five years before they were required to pay any fees at all (see the Conservative government’s 1993 Charter for Higher Education).

Students are constructed as consumers from the moment they first begin to think about attending university. Government-sponsored websites offering guidance to school children present university as mainly concerned with future employment and material reward: ‘Higher education could boost your career prospects and earning potential … on average, graduates tend to earn substantially more  … Projected over a working lifetime, the difference is something like £100,000’. The government’s perception of the benefit of HE emerges clearly: it is to enable youngsters to get a job and earn money. Education is presented as an essentially private investment from which material rewards can be accrued. The ‘good consumer’ will shop around to choose the university that will most efficiently yield the highest return on their investment.

Potential students are encouraged to look at a university’s KIS data (Key Information Set) in order to compare one institution with another. Government policy instructs institutions to make available ‘information on the proportion of time spent in different learning and teaching activities … supported by links to more detailed information at module level, for example about the time engaged in different types of teaching and learning activities including lectures’ (BIS, 2011: 26). There is an assumption that HE institutions can be compared in the same way as one might compare different types of car insurance, for example. However, no matter how detailed, KIS cannot provide an objective measure of the quality of education or the nature of the intellectual challenge. The provision of quantifiable information commodifies education into a tangible service, and the direct link between education and employment presented in such information further encourages prospective students to adopt an instrumental approach to their education.

On arrival at university, students are further constructed as consumers. They may receive a copy of their institution’s charter which will provide ‘Information for students … so they know what they can expect and what is expected of them,’ in order to ‘establish clear mutual expectations, and help monitor the student experience and how relationships are working,’ (BIS: 2011). In setting out the mutual expectations of students and lecturers, charters go beyond providing information and begin to establish a contractual relationship whereby students’ expectations of the level of service they will receive are matched by expectations upon them to behave in a particular way. One problem with this increased contractualisation is that it suggests education is a quid pro quo, with a guaranteed outcome resulting from particular behaviours. This reinforces a consumer focus upon what students ‘get’ from university rather than the experience of intellectual engagement.

Once inside the seminar room or lecture theatre the construction of students as consumers is often not challenged but reinforced. The continued focus upon employability can have an impact upon the nature of teaching as institutions may assume that the main focus for students is upon getting a degree rather than engaging in learning. Students are not given a coherent learning experience, drawing together disciplinary specific knowledge to create a greater understanding of the world from the perspective of their subject. Instead a modular approach to degree programmes reflects the combined demands for teaching efficiently and flexibly. The modularisation of courses, and the demand that students demonstrate having met particular learning outcomes in order to pass module assessments, assumes that learning is something which can be tangibly demonstrated in a particular format and within a given time scale. This represents the degree commodity students are assumed to have purchased – a commodity which can, post-graduation, be cashed in with an employer for a financial return.

It is perhaps all too easy for academics to blame students for behaving as consumers. Indeed, some students do demonstrate a sense of entitlement to a degree irrespective of effort or intellectual struggle. However we need to look at how and why students develop such an attitude towards HE and this means going beyond the focus upon tuition fees. When academics struggle to justify the purpose of universities in relation to the development of knowledge for the public good then education is reduced to little more than an instrumental focus upon the private returns to be accrued by individuals.

References

  • BIS (2011) Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, London: The Stationery Office.
  • Brown, R. (2011) Higher Education and the Market, Oxon: Routledge.
  • DfE (1993) The Charter for Higher Education, London: DfE Citizen’s Charter.
  • Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion (eds) (2011) The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, London: Routledge.
  • Williams, J. (2013) Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought, London: Bloomsbury.