With the introduction of fees for University, there has been a growing trend among commentators and politicians alike to call us consumers rather than students. The idea of education as a public good is being diminished. This has partly been driven by increased pressure on unis to make sure that we are getting ‘good value for our money.’ The truth now is that students are expected to act more like consumers when choosing a course, rather than as learners. This needs to change.
We know that unis were given permission to charge students so that they could raise more capital and continue to compete with the best institutions in the world. But this was only one of the motives. The £3000 pound limit was introduced to create a ‘market’ in Britain. The idea was to drum up competition between universities, making them compete against each other for students by charging different fees and forcing them to improve their overall appeal. The expectation was that fees could then be used as both a sign of quality (with the best charging 3k) and to encourage students to ‘shop around’ and see what they could get for the lowest fee.
It didn’t work. Almost all universities raced to the upper fee limit. Rather than create a market, all that was accomplished was the introduction of a new flat charge of 3k if you wanted to go to Uni.
The fundamental problem with this system was the cap on how high a fee could be set. The same mistake was repeated 2 years ago, when an upper limit of 9k was set. Most universities decided to charge the maximum, or close to it, because they need to fill the financial gap left by cuts to their funding. Once again, fees weren’t truly variable, nor did 9k become the hallmark of a top quality institution. But what these numbers have accomplished is to instil in students the idea that they are customers, rather than learners. They’re going to pay for uni, through tuition fees, and will receive a service as a direct consequence of that. This marks a seismic shift in our understanding of the value of education.
Now, instead of just thinking ‘How can I use uni to better myself, or become a better learner, or enter a profession?’ students are saying ‘I’m paying for this- Where’s my contact time? Where are my books? Why am I paying for printing?’ This is a serious problem as it signals that some of us are beginning to see uni in a similar way we see a commodity, something that can be bought off a shelf. This model simply won’t work for higher education. Students cannot take their education back after three years if they don’t like it. There’s a debate going on as to whether this is the right approach, whether we can move away from consumer mentality. One solution, often repeated by many, is to remove fees altogether. Sadly, it isn’t that simple. As it stands it would take huge public expenditure to fill the gap left by abolishing fees. Even if a government could raise the money by raising taxes or making cuts, is it right that university should be prioritised over funding for primary and secondary schools which still struggle to meet the standards we expect in 2013?
Whatever happens, we must do what we can to change market mentality around higher education. There are models and ideas that can be applied within the fee structure which directly tackle the notion of students as consumers. One idea is the partnership model. This involves an agreement between the student and the university that education isn’t something you buy, but is something you and the uni feed into to get the best out of it. By adopting this model, unis and students can send a clear message that education is more than just a product. It will help preserve the role of students as learners by making them partners in their own education, rather than just consumers of it.
It is of critical importance that we recognise the problem and deal with it now. University is a huge influence on so many of us, giving us ideas and experiences we take with us for the rest of our lives. If we allow fees to teach us that everything can be bought, that everything has a price, then it’ll be much more than the real value of education that we lose in the long run.
By Alice Smart