What are students ‘buying’ from universities?
Alison’s career in HE extends over a period of 38 years, including a number of senior roles in UK universities, most recently as Registrar and Secretary at the University of Salford. Alison is a member of the governing body at Hartpury University and is a long-standing Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Reviewer. She has a Master’s Degree in Higher Education from the University of Manchester.
I was talking to a friend who works for British Airways recently, and commiserating with him over the disruption that Covid caused to his industry and the stress he must have faced in his job. ‘Actually’, he said, ‘you had it worse in HE because we had contingency plans. The actions we had to take were very similar to other disruption events so we were well practised’.
It gave me food for thought. He was right, of course, that we in universities simply didn’t have those plans: yes, we had business continuity plans but they were largely about borrowing space from other organisations. Nothing that could have dealt with the unthinkable situation of the campus (ours and everyone else’s) being closed for a year. But the most significant difference is the nature of our customer: ours is not a transactional interaction but a longer term relationship, and with ‘customers’ (primarily young people and sometimes vulnerable) who are investing not just money but their futures with us.
As was argued when universities were first deemed to come under the Consumer Protection legislation, higher education is a ‘good’ like no other. Can we even agree on what the student is buying? We certainly can’t agree on a measure of value for money. The fee is deemed to be a Tuition Fee, and an obvious response to student complaints about not getting the experience they wanted is that they are getting the teaching to enable them to achieve the learning outcomes – and we never promised a social life. Yet we most likely did hold out that promise, implicitly, at our Open Days and on our websites when we showed groups of students in residences having fun together, out on the grass in summer in happy groups, joining societies and taking on volunteering opportunities. We boast of the easy access to the city centre and the night life. Are we trying to have it both ways? We pushed back on those claims which came in during times of industrial action where the tuition fee was divided by the number of contact hours in order to claim for lost teaching, saying that of course the fee paid for much more than that. But can we claim right now that students are getting what they thought they had signed up for? Yes, teaching is being delivered, often in imaginative ways which go beyond the face to face lecture they have replaced, to enable learning outcomes to be achieved, staff are continuing to support, to counsel, to give careers advice, to provide learning resources, and SU’s have moved activities online. But some things aren’t replicable or replaceable – work experience, study abroad, volunteering – all things which help students with employability and life skills, surely important aims of a university education.
Can we claim right now that students are getting what they thought they had signed up for?
Some things aren’t replicable or replaceable – work experience, study abroad, volunteering – all things which help students with employability and life skills, surely important aims of a university education.
A recent WonkeHE article references the Sutton Trust report on what students gained outside the formal curriculum before Covid and the association with better outcomes for graduates. While current students will be able to graduate successfully, there’s a less tangible impact that they may feel for years to come.
Is there a strong argument of principle as to what universities should or shouldn’t take responsibility for in the wider student experience, or does it actually come down to financial sustainability – that we simply can’t afford refunds? Other businesses can’t afford it either, but this is where universities again differ: despite the Office for Students indicating from its early days that it would not bail out any institution, that position hasn’t been put to the test and the consequences are more far reaching than in many commercial transactions: money spent on refunds will not be there to support the experience of future students and there are cohorts of graduates whose award may be devalued by an institutional failure. As has been argued elsewhere, schools aren’t being asked to take reductions in funding, so why should universities? Time for the government to decide exactly what kind of provider it thinks HE is.
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