Diana Dobrin argues that if students are considered consumers by universities, they should be treated as such
Figuring out the exact cost of each contact hour was one of my first-year curiosities. It was also my way of making sense of the UK higher education, which was challenging my views on students’ place in universities. Back at home, the norm was a distant respect that free universities were imposing on students. In the UK, collaboration, respect, and money seemed to coexist and even work together. Excuse my foreignness, but how was I to behave as both a student and a consumer? Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one confused.
Newspapers, students, teachers, education policy-makers have all been struggling for a while now to decide if tuition fees for undergraduates harm more than help the future of UK higher education. Even though everyone agrees on the facts, views are quite polarised: the government focuses on the money, universities on the experience. More so, a survey by ComRes for Universities UK has found that 47% of undergraduates regard themselves as a customer of their university, while 53% do not. It’s near impossible to find a middle ground. However, the question stays the same: should universities consider us their “students” or “consumers”?
Higher education depends on the cultural context. According to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, the UK is one of the top countries for individualism. This means that people living here are generally focusing more on their own personal fulfilment, giving rise to the consumerist concept of “me” culture. Equally, the low score in power distance offers them a greater power in dealing with institutions, with people in different positions being in theory regarded as equals. Why is this important? Because universities adapt to this cultural context. This transforms them into open and collaborative spaces. From progressive to traditional universities, students can challenge the status quo within reason. And as individualists, they are usually assertive in their requests. They expect universities to listen to their needs and desires. Doesn’t it sound like an ironically familiar narrative? If you add money into the mix, it becomes second-nature for students to be considered consumers. When you have lived most of your life as a consumer of various brands and services as we have, it doesn’t seem so absurd to continue being a consumer at university as well, does it?
Universities are scared that labelling their students as consumers will periclitate their relationship with them. Well, allow me to retort, but I doubt that to be the case. Just think for a moment about all of the brands you’re attached to. Brands have managed to develop close relationships with their audiences, despite the important presence of money. Granted, they make their audiences feel like collaborators, but at the end of the day they don’t shy away from acknowledging that they are first and foremost their consumers. This is not to say that universities should drive consumerism just like brands. But given their financial footprint and powerful identities, universities have nevertheless become brands in and of themselves. So, is it so absurd to think that students can also be simultaneously their consumers, after all?
The problem lies in how universities build their relationships with students. Deciding where the student ends and the consumer begins is key for the perceived position of students in these institutions. At one end, the government is trying to regulate the consumer realm through projects such as the higher education bill or the guide to consumer rights for students. At the other, universities invest heavily in student satisfaction programmes, afraid not to alienate students from the academic environment. In the middle, students want to get academic value for their money. But what exactly are we trying to measure?
The main lesson from having studied in both a fee-based and a free university is that knowledge is immeasurable anywhere. You can have endless criteria such as accuracy and relevance of information or applicability in the professional market, but eventually academic knowledge is what each student makes of it. Even though knowledge is too complex to evaluate, the services put in place by universities to facilitate learning are not. So, universities can have their students and keep their money, too. But here’s the catch: it’ll need educating both universities and students on how to look at the connection between tuition fees and university services.
More specifically, it would require the existence of a dual relationship: First, a student-university relationship when it comes to teaching and knowledge acquisition, and second a consumer-company one for the overall university experience, support schemes and opportunities. In this way, universities wouldn’t become degree factories under the entitlement of students, as it has often been voiced. And students wouldn’t feel their money wasted without receiving proper services, as it often happens. Essentially, it shouldn’t be about subjectively evaluating the knowledge gained from a course, how much it was worth or not. It should be about having regulations in place to improve the quality of teaching or to offer you assistance when needed. It should be about having an administration that will allow us to study the modules we want in the first place, before asking us to evaluate their quality.
To end at the beginning, I now see the situation differently than I did in first year. Of course there is a perceived disconnection between “students” and “consumers”, but that is because we stubbornly want to believe that the relationship between universities and students is somehow superior to the consumeristic one. In this age, money is deeply engrained in anything we do. It doesn’t mean it has to be at the core of what we do, but it bears an important role. And given universities are dependant on students’ money, they cannot ignore tackling this side of the story. Students are no longer just students, but they’re consumers as well. That’s why universities should focus on developing complex relationships that respond to all of these labels. Eventually, where there is demand there will be supply. But what would happen to universities in the future if their students are gone?