Are students customers?
The Financial Times' leader writer is of the view that raising the cap on the fees universities in England charge will 'raise standards'. This is relevant to Scotland because, as I have argued here on a previous occasion, it cannot be long before a 'graduate contribution' of some kind is introduced in Scotland.
The one truth that is told in this context is that universities are short of money and that, if they do not find a reliable domestic income stream, the achievement of high standards and high standing that some Scottish universities have enjoyed cannot last. Without an infusion of new income, Scottish universities will not be able to keep up with those in England, Europe, the world. If that happens, the interests of no-one in Scotland, including its students, who must hope that the institutions from which they graduate enjoy a decent reputation, will be served. That is the unpalatable truth.
So how will raising fees also raise standards? Apparently, by making universities more 'responsive' to students' needs. Mr David Willetts has spoken approvingly of students being universities' 'customers' (much as the Lord Mandelson used to do – long, long ago, before the election). This is not merely tiresome, much as it is tiresome to be told that one is a rail company's or airline's 'customer' rather than passenger. It is also only a half-truth.
If universities are businesses, as they are now supposed to be, what are they producing? They are producing students. They have not produced the whole student – parents and schools, in particular, have played their part. But they have added value at the final stage of a young person's educational development, and to that extent they have contributed to the production of the student as a (more or less) useful member of society.
The real problem is that turning students into customers is likely to lead to a decline in standards, not a raising of them.
Students, then, can be said to be what universities produce. This raises some confusion when economists, ministers and commentators refer to students as universities' 'customers'. What are students? Are they a product or are they customers? I doubt that there is any other business that faces this kind of conundrum. A widget-maker produces widgets and hopes to sell them to the kind of people who use widgets. The truth is that students are both universities' products and their customers. There is an alternative view, that students are indeed products and that universities' customers – the people who use their product – are businesses.
But universities do not sell their graduates to businesses. There is no return to a university when a business hires one of its graduates (if only!). It would be a very foolish producer who handed over its product for nothing – even if the buyer could claim to be canny.
But the real problem is that turning students into customers is likely to lead to a decline in standards, not a raising of them. Is the cliché 'The customer is always right' applicable in the case of students? Quality Assurance bureaucrats and the people running the National Student Survey may think so, but – like most people running surveys and administering questionnaires – they don't ask the students the right questions.
What students want is some predictability about which topics will feature in their exams. They want the answer to an essay question. They want more coaching – of the kind many of them have had at school – towards achieving high marks in assessed work. They want a 2.1 degree (at least). They want people like me to stop banging on about the need for accurately-written English and careful proof-reading.
I may be wrong, but I would guess that what government and potential employers want is a 'product' that can work independently, take the initiative, work hard to achieve ambitious goals and present their findings in a literate and readily-readable fashion. These attributes are unlikely to be fostered by turning students into customers whose whims must be satisfied.
Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh