Perspectives: Policy and practice in higher education is the AUA’s monthly journal which provides higher education managers and administrators with innovative material which analyses and informs their practice of management.

The Perspectives journal is published four times a year, and is available to AUA members in both hard copy and online.

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We are continuing our series celebrating articles that have appeared in the AUA’s journal Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education that our members have found relevant or meaningful.

This review is written by Dr Matthew Andrews, the chair of Perspectives’ Editorial Advisory Board. He is currently University Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire. Here he reviews ‘Quality and Consumerism in Higher Education’ by David Palfreyman (2013), that was originally featured in Perspectives Volume 17, 2013 (Issue 3).

Perspectives article review – ‘Quality and Consumerism in Higher Education’ – David Palfreyman – (2013)

The concept of consumerism in higher education, and debate about whether and in what way it might be right to describe students as consumers, has now been a vexed topic for many years. Writing in 2013, David Palfreyman has much to say on this topic in his paper ‘Quality and consumerism in higher education’. However, even more intriguing as a record of the time than his comments on students as consumers, are his comments on the nature of quality in higher education and the type of threat which may drive especially research-focused institutions to pay more attention to the quality of teaching their students experience.

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, while commenting from the perspective of the future itself is an indulgence, but in retrospective Palfreyman’s interest in the ‘much-needed price competition in the developing English HE market for UK/EU undergraduates’ slowly coming ‘from the growth of the new-entrant for-profit providers challenging the public sector incumbents’ seems exaggerated given the limited impact of such providers to date while talk of ‘the enticing possibility of MOOCs being the disruptive innovation that at last enhances HE productivity’ seems fanciful as that was one avalanche which never came.

Palfreyman also briefly considers how quality might be defined in higher education. Here he outlines five potential approaches, including a reliance on the integrity of academics as well as feedback from students as empowered consumers, but dismisses each one for different reasons. What did not make that brief list is a student’s future salary, which is where the focus of government thinking rests in 2021.

For the current government, a high-quality course is one which produces graduates who enter so-called professional employment and earn high salaries. The Office for Students is consulting on an approach to quality which goes so far as to actively relegate every aspect of a student’s background which is known to influence future career destinations to the machinations of institutions intent on using such factors ‘as an excuse for poor outcomes’ (and therefore poor-quality education). Meanwhile the Minister for Education boldly states, with nothing more than anecdote as evidence, that the National Student Survey, perhaps the prime example of the role of student as consumer, has ‘exerted a downwards pressure on standards’ since its inception.

From the perspective of 2021, it is interesting to observe that in 2013 a single focus on job category and earning potential did not have the prominence it now does. Nevertheless, the paper remains instructive and useful on the concept of the student as consumer and reminds us that higher education is a sector which generally changes gradually, incrementally, and by adding to its existing practices rather than sweeping them away: more of a glacier than an avalanche.