There is a debate going on at the moment, largely amongst educationalists, about whether to treat students as consumers or "partners in a learning community". It's a debate which appears to have no easy resolution, but on the ground - in campuses across the UK - it also appears to be increasingly irrelevant. Students are behaving more like consumers every year, pushing Universities to behave more like businesses.
In Bristol last month 600 business and finance students presented University officials with a seven page complaint, voicing their frustration at the lack of improvement in teaching since tuition fees were raised in 2006. Standards, they suggest, have in fact deteriorated: “Since 2006 the university has charged more and
delivered less. We demand results today.”
With teaching hours being reduced and even talk of undergraduates marking papers, student bodies are increasingly dissatisfied with what their getting for their money. Students in Manchester forced the Law School to reverse plans to cut teaching hours from 30 to 20 per module, staging a sit-in and mass walk out to hammer their point home. The University of Sussex's student union is leading an effective consumer orientated campaign to prevent the closure of the linguistic courses. Complaints to the university adjudicator rose by 23 per cent between 2007 and 2008, reflecting, in the words of the adjudicator, "a 'cultural change', with fee-paying students wanting more value for money".
Why is any of this relevant to 'better government'? It isn't, directly. But it provides a window onto two issues that do weigh into our debates on better government. For one, these student 'revolts' reflect a much more fundamental problem with the way further education is structured and funded in England and Wales. Students are rightly aggrieved by plans to cut teaching hours, burdening themselves as they are with mountains of debt to afford it. But Universities are certainly in a financial pinch. £3,000, for many courses, doesn't begin to cover the costs, and Higher Education funding from Government, married as it is to the commitment to get ever more people into university, becomes increasingly thinly spread. Universities are certainly guilty of some poor financial management, and sometimes even an ulterior motive (increasing research at the expense of teaching), but the reality is money is short.
But it's the confusion between whether higher education is a 'right' or a 'privilege' , something we all should enjoy or something we must pay for, which has led - once again - to an unsustainable fudge, the compromise between 'private-public' we see today. A university education is something all should aspire to, and Government should work assiduously to foster that aspiration and support those in society who are unable to afford it. Universities though, should be also allowed to charge properly, perhaps no more than the actual cost (i.e not for profit), but at least a market rate that reflects the costs. At the moment the Government's confusion, torn between a faux egalitarianism and economic reality, means no-one's happy.
The second issue highlighted by this recent spate of student action, is the idea that groups take a much more proactive interest in the quality of a service when they pay for it. When one gets something for free, one doesn't expect much. One pays for something, one expects a little more. Services funded via taxation, particuarly services such as further education - which are almost exclusively used by people who pay no tax - suffer from the fact that too many people are happy to make do with what they get becuase it does'nt directly cost them. The real cost of the service they enjoy is hidden from them. When that cost is brought home, as tuition fees have, students have sat up and taken an interest in quality. Rather than organising a sit in to show solidarity with the people of Gaza - however laudable - students are demanding the education they (and we) are paying for. Having an active consumer base is long overdue in the university sector; long may it continue.