A glass of Sangria, my cake and some time to eat it please

Originally published on wonkhe

It’s that time of year again. A levels results are out, the standards debate has been rehearsed, the clearing supplements are wrapped around our chips and the papers turn to the titillation of the excesses of Freshers week, badly researched articles on living in “hall” and thought pieces speculating on whether undergraduates will be taking their university experience more seriously now they’re paying (or at least deferring paying) large sums for it. With all of this come the now familiar concerns about students viewing themselves as customers, counterposed with lofty ideals of co-production, partnership and collaboration.

I’ve read so many of these articles that I could weep. “Universities should be challenging their students to become collaborative learners rather than conformist consumers” says one. “Students aren’t customers…or are they?” says another. “Students: Customers or learners?”. Yawn.

The astonishing thing about almost all of these articles is that they suppose that it is only possible for students to be one of two types. Set up as diametric opposites, it is of course easy to reject the customer model as being unsuitable and undesirable. Students can’t easily use the power of exit; they may well be dissatisfied with failing an assessment; and they of course need to put some effort into the relationship with teachers to yield results in a way that is not necessary when buying a TV in Dixons.

Yet each time I read these articles I find myself deeply distressed. Why is it so hard for us to imagine that students are capable of multiple roles and identities? God forbid that we imagine that students can be learners, and customers, and even citizens, all at the same time.

Of course the relationship between learner and teacher requires responsibilities as well as rights; effort to derive success; partnership and coproduction. When a customer of Lunn Poly arrives in Magaluf they only become a holidaymaker when they leave their hotel room, dig around the resort and find a good bit of beach. They are partners in the “good holiday experience” just as learners need to put in effort and take on responsibility to get the grades they want.

But imagine arriving on holiday on a heavily delayed flight to find a dirty hotel room, a complex not as advertised in the brochure, unhelpful welcome staff and a “glass of sangria” welcome meeting whose time keeps changing. These are not elements which ought to require responsibility on behalf of the holidaymaker. Their end of this partnership was stumping up the cash. So for me, where a prospectus oversells a campus; where course organization and management is poor, where estates aren’t up to scratch and where assessment feedback is weeks late, these are customer issues. Institutions should be setting standards, driving performance to meet those standards, and then saying sorry and arranging recourse when they fall short.

And that’s the real problem with the counterposition of the two models. In loftily assuming that we have to somehow “pick”, it lets poor management and delivery off the hook. It solves a largely illusory problem for academics but generates one for poorly served students. Students are already in an environment where the power of exit is almost impossible to exercise; where the protection regime for the Magaluf holiday is more sophisticated than that for HE thanks to a cowardly coaltion that dare not mention HE again; and where the link between buyer, user and payer for HE is fatally separated by time in a way that leaves the user the weakest of the three players when it comes to complaint and recourse. So it seems to me that heaping onto that mess a cultural construct that says that any and all of a university’s delivery problems and broken promises are to be excused in the name of responsibility and partnership is about as low as we can go. Perhaps students aren’t in partnership with their university at all- perhaps they are in partnership with their academics but are customers of their institution. Perhaps.

There is a third role I’ve not mentioned. Citizens work with others to create communities. In the ideal, they are both self and community regarding- they mediate their own interests out with others in public through democracy and dialogue and they hold responsibilities as well as rights. Very few of us are shareholders in Lunn Poly but the underpinning assumption is that students and staff all share in the Government and Governance of public sector HE. So maybe, rather than holding a self defeating boxing match between customer and learner, we would be better to remind ourselves that at least in the (quasi) public sector part of HE, students and staff get to share in the Government of their institution because we believe them to be part owners of it.

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