Is education a consumer product?

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The university fee hike in 2012 transformed the nature of higher education. The £9,000 price tag many students now pay has seen universities become mega-businesses, geared to attracting paying ‘customers’ and competing against one another while vice-chancellors are committing a large portion of their expenditure to marketing and branding.

St Andrews is no different. Louise Richardson’s recent £30,000 bonus was as much a reward for the University’s academic excellence under her stewardship, as it was for her successful charm offensive with American and international students. Indeed, in an increasingly competitive market an inter-campus arms race has broken out: a recently refurbished library, a new Union and a redeveloped sports centre are St Andrews’ weapons of choice.

According to the Association of University Directors of Estate, current capital expenditure on enhancing university campuses “equates to more than the average annual Crossrail budget.” The sector’s £27 billion turnover is enough to place it in fourth in the FTSE 100, beaten only by Tesco, Vodafone and Sainsbury’s.

For many, placing a financial transaction, in the form of £9,000 tuition fees since 2012, at the heart of the relationship between tutor and student will improve the performance of universities, he claimed. Supporters say that recasting students as consumers will relieve tax-payers of the burden of funding degrees while improving student learning.

A recent proposal, put forward by Professor Craig Mahoney, principal of the University of West of Scotland (UWS), to offer a rebate to students who fail their degree is both radical and novel, another tactic in an increasingly competitive market. According to UWS, the refund would be available only to those who took advantage of all the help and support available to them if they began to struggle with their studies.

Sceptics will see the policy as a marketing gimmick. “Get your degree here or your money back,” the cynics will trill. But for Professor Mahoney, the proposal is a serious attempt to remain attractive as competition increases, and it is a policy other universities should look to adopt. “We cannot sit in our ivory towers, observing and imagining that we will be unaffected by the changes taking place around us,” he said.

The proposals would not impact Scottish students who do not pay fees and it is unclear what it would mean for the rest of the UK. The most significant potential impact would be on students from outside the EU whose fees are uncapped and whose numbers are high in St Andrews. It is unusual to simply fail a degree: the warning lights usually go off beforehand and efforts are made to prevent the problem spiralling out of control. Practicalities aside, however, as this brand of incipient consumerism infects higher education, the relationship between the student and the lecturer is being transformed. Defining a university education as a private benefit rather than as a public good endangers the sense of a shared intellectual endeavour enshrined in any good university education.

The earnings-oriented students of the 21st century are a different breed to their predecessors of the 1970s. A marking boycott last semester, which might once have seen passionate students join their tutors on the picket line, was greeted with a more muted reaction. Students are aware of the price they are paying for their education and want their money’s worth. Yet, higher education fundamentally concerns intellectual pursuit, not the pursuit of capital, nor potential increased earnings. The rhetoric surrounding fees is paving the way for a market-led future. But is it one that we want? Right now it appears we have little choice.

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