nicola dandridge100x100“Don’t call students consumers” Nicola Dandridge CBE, Chief Executive of the new Office for Students, was reported as saying at the launch of its new regulatory framework last month.

“We now need to ensure the new Office for Students is empowered to protect students and take enforcement action if university providers breach consumer protection laws," commented Which? Magazine’s Alex Hayman afterwards.

So are they consumers or not? Personally I’ve never had a problem with the term, as a confirmed believer in Shaw’s axiom that all professions are conspiracies against the laity.

As I’ve argued in these pages before, I regard the student consumer as a far more reliable guide to the teaching excellence or otherwise of a lecturer than partial peer review.

Given the historic primacy of research in universities, arising from both provider incentives through REF-driven funding as well as provider choice through academic preference, it’s not unreasonable to fear a mismatch between what the now paying public wants and what it will get.

If, as the Rolling Stones almost said, you can’t or perhaps shouldn’t always give the student consumer what they want, if we try sometimes, well we just might find, we give them what they need…

Thus I have always argued before horrified academics, outraged at my consumerist analogy between a university and a gym - as though the cultivation of a healthy body was obviously completely different from the cultivation of a healthy mind.

On reflection, they were of course quite right.

It’s ludicrously easy to enter into long term financial commitments with gyms even if one has no aptitude for or genuine interest in physical work, and the promised returns are often completely illusory.

What you get out of a gym really depends entirely on what you put in, however dedicated your ‘personal trainer’ (who often seems more interested in improving their own body than yours).

Everyone there always seems to have been born in Lycra, with polished ‘guns’ (they have a language all of their own you know) and buffed up bodies, and first time users don’t stand a chance, with many wanting to drop out in the first few weeks if they can escape their contracts.

Oh and the wifi’s terrible… So really nothing like a university at all.

You get the point. As successive governments have exhorted students, Waitrose-like, to be more demanding I have cheered them on from the side lines. No bleeding heart liberal academic heart beats within my breast.

Sam Gyimah100x100Why then did even I feel a slight twinge of discomfort at that launch event at the end of February, where the Minister of State, Sam Gyimah MP, trumpeted, “The biggest shake up to Higher Education in 25 years… placing students at the very heart of higher education,” echoing the title of the White Paper which promised the last biggest shake up back in 2011.

"Gone are the days when students venerated institutions and were thankful to be admitted. We are in a new age – the age of the student” he declared.

I wasn’t there but the QE II Conference Centre must have felt like Paris or Berkeley in 1968. Or must it…

I vividly remember going to Oxford for the first time and venerating it enormously, being deliriously thankful to be admitted when my offer letter came through.

I don’t know but I imagine that the Minister felt something similar after making the journey from a state school to those same dreaming spires.

For me, that was the age of the student, when Oasis conquered all before them and three years past in a Blur.

“One area where I particularly think work needs to be done is in mental health” Gyimah continued. “Several students have raised this issue with me on my tour and said they feel that the provision and understanding of the pressures on students needs to evolve”.

But what are those pressures Minister? “It’s not surprising that they expect clear evidence that this is a valuable investment”.

Of course, investments are a stressful business aren’t they.

“The value of your investments can go down as well as up. This means that you may get back less than you invest” as you will read in any financial investment prospectus but curiously not in any university prospectus.

Indeed, being a consumer is a stressful business, requiring eternal vigilance that you’re getting value for money and not getting ripped off by some rapacious profiteer desperate to part you from your money.

But then a change of tone. “I passionately believe that higher education is not a simple transaction. In the world of value for money, this can sometimes get lost. We cannot regulate universities in the same way we regulate water companies. What students want from their universities goes beyond simply the provision of lectures and labs in return for fees. We don’t want to narrow the debate, reducing all the issues to pounds and pence. What makes going to university valuable is the experience. Students want to be part of universities that change their lives for the better”.

Reassuring perhaps. But how are universities meant to effect this change, let alone transform lives, merely by giving students what they want as opposed to what they may need?

The two aren’t necessarily in conflict of course, but as anyone with a passing knowledge of human psychology or the challenge of giving up smoking knows, they very well might be.

And what of the four regulatory objectives of the OfS?

To ensure: “All students, from all backgrounds, and with the ability and desire to undertake higher education:

  1. Are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education.
  2. Receive a high quality academic experience…
  3. Are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time.
  4. Receive value for money”.

Take the first: Access

“We need to look at all forms of disadvantage, including BME” said Gyimah.

Well-intentioned of course, and Gyimah’s own personal story furnishes an inspiring narrative, but is it really helpful to talk of being black or minority ethnic as being a ‘disadvantage’?

Does it make any sense to use this generic classification term, when membership of certain non-white ethnic groups confers significant educational advantage and that of certain white communities does the opposite?

And that’s before you get to the detail of access and participation plans, the reward for excellence in which is the paradoxical prize of being able to charge their beneficiaries more (through registration in the ‘Approved (fee cap)’ category.

Because that’s really what the category is called in which you can charge the highest fees. I’m not making this up.

And if you don’t measure up to what you promise in your plan?

Then a Stalin show trial-style apology awaits in your access statement, along the lines of this typical example I found on the internet: “We acknowledge that the University is making slower than expected progress in the recruitment of young and mature entrants from POLAR3 low participation neighbourhoods.” And sorry about the tractor production…

This slightly sinister aspect to what may be thought laudable social engineering objectives doesn’t end there.

At the same launch event, Chairman Michael (Barber) promised that the OfS would, “Work with employers and with regional and national industry representatives to ensure that student choices are aligned with current and future needs for higher level skills”.

Quite how you can ensure such an alignment whilst retaining anything meaningful in the word ‘choice’ is as hard to grasp as how you can ‘secure student success’ (in the language of the OfS’s regulatory framework) whilst retaining room for individual human agency.

Take the second: A high quality academic experience

The primary vehicle for which is the Teaching Excellence Framework. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the concept of a parallel framework for measuring excellence in teaching analogous to the REF, and as indicated at the start, applaud the use of student feedback within that.

But you don’t have to be a Guardian editorialist or worship the water the good Lord Adonis walks on to be sceptical of any alleged link between good teaching and high future income.

Although if of course institutions are luring students in on the basis that the path leading from the graduation hall is inexorably paved with gold, then perhaps they have it coming.      

Take the third: Progress into employment or further study

Which is of course a proxy for grade inflation. But isn’t this arguably a natural consequence of the outraged student consumer questioning why they achieved a mark on their paper of 70 (thereby losing 30% of the total marks available) when they put down everything that was in the suggested answer and attended every single one of their (wholly inadequate) contact hours?

When a first is seen as the logical outcome of hard work plus good teaching, and something somewhere must have gone badly wrong if a mark falls to even the upper-reaches of the second class division? And if it reaches the lower end?! “Get Barber on the phone!”  

Take the fourth: Value for money

Defined in the glossary of the regulatory framework as “Meeting the need for efficiency, economy, effectiveness and prudence in the administration and expenditure of financial resources” - a rather narrow, institution-focused definition for a body designed to herald “The age of the student”.

I’ve never been more and at the same time less employable than at the moment of graduation.

Supremely employable by virtue of that magic piece of parchment. Completely unemployable because of the lamentable habits and behaviours learned at university, which had to be unlearned painfully in the years immediately following.

But even were that not compensated for by the all-important signifying 2:1, I wouldn’t for a moment say that it wasn’t worth every penny of someone else’s money back in the day, and my own today. But we need to be clear what we’re grading on.

 All of the above aims are of course laudable in themselves and I remain broadly speaking a fan of the OfS and a believer in the logic behind its creation. 

Who could object to striving to deliver what Barber termed, “An excellent education to all students”? But as Bill and Ted found back in the day, excellent adventures can turn all too easily into bogus journeys.

It is incumbent on all of us plying our trade in higher education under the watchful eye of the OfS to make sure we don’t lose our way.

Ben Hughes

As ever, Ben Hughes writes in a purely personal capacity, expressing his own views rather than those of his institution.

He is Vice Principal (Industry Engagement) at Pearson College London, where he will be chairing a debate on the purpose of a university on April 17th, putting questions to the OfS’s Carl Lygo, Lord Willetts, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, Dr. Wendy Piatt, former Director General of the Russell Group, Dr. Joanna Williams, author of ‘Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought’ and Roxanne Stockwell, Principal of Pearson College London.

Please register if you’d like to come along for what promises to be a very lively debate: https://www.fenews.co.uk/create-event/viewevent/400-what-is-the-purpose-of-a-university

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