The promise to students

Originally published on wonkhe

Much has been made over the last few years of the promises that politicians made and broke. But what of the promises that institutions make to students?

Ask the question who should pay? or how much should they pay? and the combined noise of the sector, parents, Parliament and press of every political colour is deafening, hand wringing their way around the moral minefields of access, expansion and elitism.

But ask what will students get for that money? or what will they get taught? and everyone runs for cover after the suggestion that a financial transaction might imply a (consumer) right.

Consumer Rights?

It’s this scenario that makes the current passage of the Consumer Rights Bill through its committee stage in the Lords so intriguing. The Bill has meandered its way around the Houses of Parliament with (apparently) little involvement with or scrutiny from the sector – or even the HE floor of BIS. The sector – from mission groups to representative bodes and unions – have been oddly quiet. Even Which? don’t appear to have anything to say.

In the words of respected education lawyer, Smita Jamdar, the sector needs to wake up!

If passed in its current form, the implications of the Bill are huge. It creates a new enhanced system of redress for consumers that mean the promises made when trying to attract customers have to be kept. Almost anything that is said or written to the student by or on behalf of the university about the institution will be considered a term of the contract.

This is great news for those of that believe that universities that promise star lecturers, gleaming libraries, guaranteed accommodation or three-week turnaround on assessment feedback to get their hands on the fee loan cash should actually have to deliver these things.

It’s bad for those that promote the students aren’t customers motif, who are unwittingly siding with those who promise star lecturers yet deliver overworked PhD students to do the ‘boring teaching thing’.

Better still, any breach gives students the right to seek a ‘repeat performance’ or even a reduction in the fee – without having to prove a loss. The sloppy way in which whole chunks of courses are simply closed or retired will need to be tightened. University estates projects will have to be delivered on time. And the disclaimers that adorn prospectuses will suddenly not be worth the glossy paper they are printed upon.

All of this seems extremely important as we hurtle toward the high watermark of market churn and tempting promises that the removal of the numbers cap looks set to bring. It looks like an important opportunity to be clear about what students are (and are not) paying for and to strengthen internal delivery systems to meet those promises.

What are students paying for?

We are used to seeing HE sold on teaching and facilities, but if there’s anything that students are paying for, it’s to be assessed and fed back to. In an age of digital distribution and reproduction, a bored PhD student shuffling their way through someone else’s slides no longer represents a problem – students can surf around to find better teaching – and electronic resources are just a Google Scholar search away.

No, it’s the process of assessing the standard of a piece of work and then crafting feedback that justifies that score, giving a clear route to improvement, that is personal, powerful and important in the experience of higher education.

So how is the sector doing? This year’s National Student Survey results suggest bad news. Although most of the indicators are at a record high, assessment and feedback is still languishing around the 70% mark.

How are we still in a situation where three out of ten students aren’t satisfied with the process their institution goes through to assess and feed back to them? It’s even worse when you dig a bit deeper. The taught HEI score for ‘feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand’ sits at 66%, which is extraordinary given what feedback is supposed to be for in the cycle of learning and improvement.

The sector can and must do more to start improving these scores. Stories still persist of HEIs that set a target for return times and either consistently miss it or, worse still, never even monitor it (only to blame students’ high expectations).

Too many academics are still setting work where the criteria for success is as opaque as the stained glass windows of the dreamy spired institutions which inspire such unhelpful, rite-of-passage behaviour.

And the only thing worse than the resulting sausage of this process is if students found out what was in those sausages – hurried, rushed and bored marking, perfunctorily performed by overworked academics and their PhD students, covered up and justified by an external examiner and double marking culture barely fit for 30 years ago, and utterly broken in the mass HE age.

So what is to be done? Almost five years ago NUS published some pretty remarkable proposals – remarkable not for their radicalism but for their conservatism. Things like timely feedback. Face-to-face feedback for at least the first piece of assessment each academic year. A variety of assessment methods. Electronic submission of work. And anonymous marking for all summative assessment.

Might consumer rights generate partnership?

Ironically for the critics of the NSS who so hate the ‘consumerist’ power it gives to students’ views, it’s the NSS’s worst score that is so important for nurturing the co-produced relationship that is the consumerist antithesis.

Higgins, Hartley and Skelton’s The Conscientious Consumer, makes clear that:

students seemed to read and value their tutors’ comments… not as simply instrumental ‘consumers’ of education, driven solely by the extrinsic motivation of the mark… they are motivated intrinsically and seek feedback which will help them to engage with their subject in a ‘deep’ way.

In other words, what the consumerist NSS is telling us is that the biggest area of concern for students is the one bit of HE that they don’t see from a consumer perspective.

More broadly, perhaps it’s the very process of making ‘consumer’ promises – that then have to be managed and delivered by extraordinarily well paid people, and may well shortly be backed up by law – that ultimately help deliver the student partnership relationship craved for by so many. Funny how things turn out.

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