I’ve written about the equity of tuition fees before, and this blog looks at a secondary issue to do with fees. That is, that students who pay for their studies are the universities’ customers. This topic has been around for a while, and the temperature of discussions rises as fees do. In a way it’s an open and shut case – they pay, so they are customers – but there are some crucial nuanced shades within all of this.
Is the Student Customer king?
Tuition fees are mostly justified on basis of the better salaries that graduates command. There are a number of issues of the varying truth and fairness around this – see the tuition fee blog – as well as the view that fees encourage universities to be ‘responsive’. In other words, as with other companies/organisations that offer services in a marketplace, they should be delivering what their current (and potential) customers ask for. This means that they should provide the courses and other services that the students want, in the way that they want them. Student satisfaction ratings (see here) help to maintain this ‘responsiveness’ because low ratings can mean that universities or particular degrees will struggle to attract enough students, and that can spell trouble.
A central question here is whether students are best placed to know what they should want, perhaps what they need, especially in the long term. Should students only demand — and universities supply — degrees that lead to good jobs? There are social and personal arguments against this; again, see the fees blog. In the context of this discussion, even if the degree-to-salary argument was the only thing people were interested in, a course which focused solely on doing a particular job, on being work-ready upon graduation, might be out of date before too long. You do learn while you’re working, but it’s also important to develop ways of learning and problem solving that allow you to adapt and grow over a lifetime. This is why academics (as experts in their fields) try to design courses that cover the necessary parts of a discipline, taught in a way that is more than just knowing facts or how to do a specific set of tasks. You wouldn’t ask children to design the school system, but you can’t ignore or patronise them, either, and students should have some input. If they don’t understand the lecturer, the teaching methods or course aren’t engaging, or the feedback doesn’t help them improve, then there needs to be a system in place to address that. At the same time, though, degrees are supposed to be difficult (but not impossible), and this isn’t always fun. Some subjects or topics are harder to brighten up than others, but they’re usually in the course because they’re important. This is a complex balance, and you’ll never please everybody, but you do your best.
What kind of customer is a student?
It’s important to note that there are different kinds of customer. A university education isn’t simply an object you pick off the shelf. There is an element of choice for subjects and locations and so on, but it’s unlike most other situations where something is bought. Some areas of campus life, like food and accommodation, are similar to other customer experiences where you largely ‘receive’ a product or service. But if you take your car to the garage, you don’t expect to do most of the work yourself while the mechanic gives you pointers. This is what essentially happens when you do a degree, because in a sense what you’re looking for is a change in yourself – you’re the end product. It’s perhaps more similar to gym membership in that they have to provide sufficient facilities and appropriate classes, but nothing happens if you don’t use them.
A lot of the discussion around student-customers has been focused on the idea that students expect more and want to do less since they’re paying. There are a lot of anecdotes but not much research on this, so it’s difficult to say what’s going on. Students obviously expect the university to do something, but they should also be aware that they have to work hard. Fees may have some impact on students’ perceptions of university, but also the nature of the labour market and how universities engage with students can play a part. The number of people going to university is rising, and this means that students might feel under more pressure to be employable when they graduate. The aim is that they are able to get jobs, but as I mentioned earlier, that first job is not the only thing a degree is for. Employers often provide inductions and ongoing training, too, to help with the transition and beyond. For the universities, rankings (and reduced state funding) have upped the ante in that these encourage aggressive competition. Universities have to market themselves to prospective students, and then try to bend over backwards to ensure that satisfaction levels are high. From one side, a university sells itself online, in prospectuses, and on open days, and has to live up to the picture it paints. But on the other hand, what students are buying – buying into – is that university’s input into their own future self, what it is that they’ll be as a result of having studied there.
As an afterthought…
Something that muddies the waters in all of this is that universities have been providing more or less same thing to students for decades: critical, informed ways of thinking and the means to solving problems, learnt through degrees that contain specialist knowledge. Before, the state paid often paid for it, or at least subsidised it. ‘The Public’ footed the bill and recouped that in the things that graduates provide back to society, like better health, schools, infrastructure, and so on. Graduates do generally earn more, but this partly represents their value to employers and society. The major difference is that the source of the money to universities has changed, not what universities do. The obligation that they had to students has always been there, but perhaps with fees that responsibility is more striking.