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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Peanuts and Monkeys: Why Students Will Not Drive Better Teaching Along with Higher Tuition Fees

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In a thinly disguised attempt to prepare the ground ahead of raising the cap on university tuition fees (which seems inevitable no matter whether Labour or the Conservatives win the next general election), the business secretary Peter Mandelson has said that students, as "consumers of the higher education experience," need to demand more from their universities to help them drive up standards and offer better value for money.

On the face of it, you might expect me to agree with him. As I blogged recently, as a university teacher who has a massive student debt himself, I feel that modern universities - led by a generation of deans, vice-chancellors and department heads who merrily strolled through with grants - fail to acknowledge just what a pressured position students find themselves in, and they consequently take student demands for extra or better contact hours as an affront rather than their right. Meanwhile, students do not fully recognise their own value as fee paying customers, and are still in awe of staff who are forced to focus on research rather than teaching, and so students fail to make additional legitimate demands both on their teachers and on universities, who should divert more of their fat fees into teaching resources rather than research.

There is also, admittedly, something of the bemoaned student apathy at work, and it was not surprising that Mandelson invoked the spirit of the radical 1960s to inspire student-consumer pressure:
As students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more and are entitled to receive more in terms not just of the quality of courses, but the whole experience they receive during their time in the higher education system. If there is a degree of passivity, then I hope that without enjoining our student population to take to the barricades, I hope they will be more picky, demanding and choosy as consumers of the higher education experience.
Putting the onus on students to pull their universities up might, then, seem a positive thing. Yet it misses out one glaringly obvious, horrible trap that lies in wait should the fees be raised again.

At the moment, with lower top-up fees, most universities charge the full amount money, £3 145 in 2008-2009. There is, therefore, not much of a market in Higher Education, and students go where their grades take them, and accept the teaching they are given. But were the fee cap to be lifted, with some muttering about £5000 as a starting point, the marketplace would become more diverse, with some universities charging markedly less in an attempt to attract students. This is what New Labour and the Higher Education sector have clamoured for all along; it has just taken some time for them to incrementally legislate up the tuition fee ladder (or should that be down the slippery slope?).

In this new environment, rather than students pulling university teaching standards up, students would go to the university they can afford, with variable teaching standards attendant on that. It has already been seen that students from the poorest backgrounds are deterred from university, despite promises of substantial grants and bursaries. Charging higher fees would mean that even students who want to go to university in principle, will be more likely to choose those they can most afford. Meanwhile, students from affluent backgrounds, who will also more likely have received better secondary and tertiary educations, will go to universities (often the red bricks) that perhaps need to be less innovative and offer fewer contact hours in teaching, because of the higher standard of student they attract. Such students might well be more apathetic when it comes to making increased demands of their institutions. Meanwhile, students from less positive educational backgrounds, who are more likely to be forced to choose cheaper universities, may worry about the poor quality of the teaching, but will be confronted with that old capitalist equation between peanuts and monkeys. They will be told to shut up like well-behaved consumers, because they got what they paid for.

Whilst his motivating of students was a good thing, Mandelson was misguided in his reasons for doing so. With higher tuition fees looming, the starting point should not be to expect that students will drive standards in the Higher Education market, but to require universities to pull standards up from the top. Higher Education is not a consumer product like a car, or television, or computer. Unlike in the retail sector, a marketplace in Higher Education will not lead to students/consumers to demand more, for less, forcing institutions to compete on teaching quality and value for money. This is because of the massive costs involved, at the early stage of life, which mean that some consumers are automatically going to be forced to aim for a lower priced institution; meanwhile, those who can aim higher are also the least likely to feel that the quality of their education is poor, because they are most likely equipped with the parental support and educational backgrounds to compensate for it. What might at first seem to be Mandelson's concern for a student centred Higher Education, actually revolves round his love affair with the market, and the university's lust for higher tuition fees, whatever the cost to the young.

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Posted by Alistair at 12:31 pm


Anonymous vitamin b said...

I have read the whole article based on the Drive better Teaching Along with Tuition Fees.I like post very much as it contain very informative in nature.I agree with the Whilst his motivating of students was a good thing, Mandelson was misguided in his reasons for doing so.I know students are not giving full attention to the studies as their fee structure is too high.

3:14 am  

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