Are we guilty of confirmation bias in the ‘Student as Customer’ debate?


This topic has been hotly debated for some time here and elsewhere as tuition fees have been introduced and/or raised. Beyond the well-established point that high fees are both socially unjust and often economically unjustifiable on the level of individual returns, the chief concern seems to be that students are becoming ‘consumerist’ – increasingly instrumental and excessively demanding.

We should firstly acknowledge that students themselves are not really ‘to blame’ here but they are to some extent pawns in a wider political project. The current climate does frame students as customers and we are partly complicit in this. Fee regimes are imposed by the state, but universities now market themselves to students heavily. Once they have enrolled we ask them for constant feedback to improve provision (and try to maximise our student satisfaction scores). We also pay a great deal of attention to employability, to some extent in a self-serving way under duress from KIS data and rankings. As Stephen Jones has recently pointed out on WonkHE, such features in the sector are going to have some kind of effect on students. The problem is that there’s very little research on this topic so it’s difficult to chart what changes are actually taking place. Anecdotal evidence as featured in much of the discussions (including this recent Guardian story) is not necessarily a good marker of the real state of affairs as there is a real temptation to succumb to confirmation bias. ‘Everyone’s saying that students are like this, and here are some fruity examples where this is the case, so it must be true.’ We probably all have stories like this.

The academic literature has at times been guilty of the same problem. Some research has gone out to prove that students are lazy and instrumental, but even their results were mixed. Of course they were: students are not just self-serving and passive. Other studies have shown that students are somewhat instrumental but not entirely so. They can also be irrational, driven by the intrinsic value of studying, as well as altruistic. Firstly, some degree of instrumentalism is not necessarily a problem. People can’t be expected to go to university simply for the sheer intellectual beauty of it whether they are paying fees or not. Secondly, students do expect something from their university, but they also want to be challenged and they accept that they have to work hard to do well. The relationship between the university and the student is a complex one, and is perhaps unlike any other except perhaps the gym and gym member. Joining alone doesn’t get you fit, in the same way as paying your fees doesn’t get you a good degree. Students know this, and this can be seen in the research.

Perhaps because I’m aware of this issue through my research, I instigate discussions with my students about what they think a ‘good student’ looks like, and diligence and effort come high on the list of the characteristics they cite. They admit that they’d often like to do as little work as possible and for things to be easy, but by and large they want to develop and accept that the burden of effort is mostly on their shoulders. They also have expectations of me: that the material we teach is accessible in the first instance, that the way we teach is engaging where possible, that course delivery is varied and based on models of good pedagogy, and that our feedback makes sense so they can see where to improve. These are entirely reasonable, and I don’t imagine they wouldn’t have been considered as such ten or twenty years ago.

Maybe we should accept that students have always been customers – of a sort – whether they are paying directly for their studies or not, and that universities have always had a responsibility to support them. So what’s changed? There is certainly a greater urgency around employability, and this is in driven by the rhetoric that justifies fees, the economic climate, and the fact that there are more graduates than before and so competition for jobs is probably more intense. Fees are, of course, a game changer, but they won’t create the purely rational, demanding actor that only politicians and economists imagine exist. It is far more complex than this. What fees certainly do is make us more directly responsible to students and more culpable if we’re not fulfilling our side of the bargain.

What can make this issue easier to navigate is an early articulation to (or better, with) students of what is expected of them, and what they can realistically expect from us. In other words, a clarification of where the balance of responsibility lies. This balance will vary across subjects, departments and universities, as well as countries, ‘we’ and ‘they’ have an active role to play in the relationship. But it is a balance that can be identified early on and this can help students and staff understand what is expected of each other.


About ddubdrahcir

A Higher Educationalist...
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