Is it really a good idea to treat students as consumers?

Universities may spend more money on marketing, but substance will always be more important than style.

Universities may spend more money on marketing, but substance will always be more important than style

At the University and College Union, we are not surprised by the BBC’s recent finding that there was a considerable increase in student complaints between 2010/11 and 2012/13.

The number of complaints submitted by disgruntled students shot up to 20,000, according to Freedom of Information requests submitted by the BBC.

What hasn’t been given due emphasis is that those students starting university in 2012/13 were the first to pay £9,000-a-year tuition fees.

UCU and the government agreed this morning that a reason for the rise could be because students have been encouraged to think of themselves as consumers in the higher education market.

While the government considers this a step forward, we are less convinced that treating students like consumers is benefitting anyone.

The newly inflated fees were used to plug a very large funding gap the government created by slashing teaching grants to universities. This means that some people have been left with the erroneous impression that tripling university fees left universities awash with cash.

It didn’t.

However, the government has not been promoting its cuts and some students and parents are more likely to question why they are not getting any extra bang for their massively increased buck.

One type of complaint was about the content and structure of courses. This ties in with recent research from the Higher Education Policy Institute which revealed the top two priorities for students regarding university spending were teaching hours and class sizes.

Universities need to help themselves by setting in a very clear format exactly what students can expect from a course in terms of lectures, tutorials and practicals, and also what is expected of the student.

When it comes to contact time, students need to be aware that in some subjects, particularly those in the arts and humanities, there has always been a strong emphasis on independent study. Many courses in these areas will have a relatively light weekly timetable of lecturers and tutorials. The richness of a university experience depends on what people put into it.

Despite today’s figures, the vast majority of students are still very happy with every aspect of their time at university. The most recent National Student Satisfaction survey confirmed that satisfaction among students in the UK remains high. Each of the eight assessment categories saw improvements on the previous year’s results or remained the same.

Universities may now spend more money on marketing, but substance will always be more important than style.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union

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