Students: consumers at the heart of a university?

Sunday 21 October, 3.15pm until 4.45pm, Frobisher 4-6

With universities now charging tuition fees of up to £9000 a year, many now claim students should be regarded as consumers of higher education. While this prospect horrifies traditionalists, its advocates argue students’ desire to get their money’s worth will drive up quality and help modernise and democratise an old-fashioned education system.

Consumer-minded students are fully conversant with their rights, and increasingly assert those rights through formal complaints procedures. And the ‘student voice’ movement advocated by the NUS also argues that student satisfaction should be at the heart of university life. Behind the bluster of those on either side of the fees debate, from universities minister David Willetts to student protesters, from free marketers to social includers, there is a great deal of consensus, especially around the notion that all students are entitled to a university degree. Even academics seem keen to acknowledge the importance of students’ satisfaction, even over the pursuit and expansion of knowledge. Student satisfaction surveys are now institutionalised, and play a dominant part in the organisation of higher education: scoring highly is considered an important endorsement of any university’s value.

Nevertheless, critics charge that the consumer culture is turning university education on its head, putting the least qualified in charge. Students are often not in a position to distinguish between run-of-the-mill and quality education, let alone demand a concrete outcome from the pursuit of higher study. The embrace of a consumerist ethos implies a role reversal between the authority of the teacher and the student. Traditionally, the customer is always right, but surely this puts academics under pressure to avoid giving low grades, and to offer flattery instead of frank feedback. Are we encouraging students to believe that because they have paid for their education, they are entitled to demand satisfaction and a decent degree, to view knowledge acquisition as a transaction? In the marketplace, it is not the service providers’ job to question or challenge the tastes and values of potential customers. So what are the consequences for academics, who traditionally are in the business of educating their students’ tastes and encouraging them to question their values? Or is it no longer possible to uphold the ideal of the university as the province of an academic elite dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, with students as an afterthought?


Aaron Porter
higher-education consultant and freelance journalist; former NUS president

Dr Duna Sabri
visiting research fellow, department of Education & Professional Studies, King's College, London

Dr Joanna Williams
academic; author, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity; education editor, spiked

Professor Michael Young
Emeritus Professor of Education, UCL Institute of Education

Dr Shirley Lawes
researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques

Produced by
Dr Shirley Lawes researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques
Dr Joanna Williams academic; author, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity; education editor, spiked
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