The student as a consumer? The next steps for student experience and quality assurance in universities
Many lecturers – quite rightly proud of the standard of teaching offered by their institution – may baulk at the idea that obtaining a degree can be reduced to a mere business transaction. The label of ‘consumer’ is uncomfortable close to that of ‘customer’, and no-one wants higher education denigrated to the level of booking a holiday or choosing a phone contract. However, the inescapable truth is that – with the introduction and upcoming hike in tuition fees – students themselves are more conscious than ever before about the value of their degree.
To take the consumer analogy further, if you have decided to buy a new car and three are offered to you priced at £9,000, it is only reasonable that you are going to do as much as possible to find out every detail you can about the vehicles. Even the smallest negative report could sway the decision one way or the other. With the majority of universities electing to charge the maximum fee amount for each year of education, not to expect the same behaviour from prospective students would be ludicrous. Students see themselves as consumers even if some educators are not prepared to, as they are being asked to shoulder the cost of their degree.
However, there is a more palatable and practical solution. Rather than viewing the student as a consumer, universities should start to see each student as a stakeholder, helping to provide the vital feedback that will carry that institution forward and ensure that every module adds value to the degree they are investing their future in. A consumer can be forgotten about once the transaction is complete, but a stakeholder will be an advocate for life, working to enhance the reputation of the university as they feel they have had involvement in its development.
An important approach for building the student/university partnership is to ensure the student experience is interactive and immediate. Prompt ‘you said – we did’ feedback reporting that gathers opinions and ideas from students at regular intervals on a modular course is a simple and cost effective method. This can provide details on individual teaching on a module, but has the added advantage that, by capturing a core set of questions across the institution, the university gains visibility as to the quality of the teaching across departments, identifying excellence or areas of concern. The students that have provided that detail can then be kept informed of the actions that will be taken as a result – closing the “feedback loop” and enhancing the feeling of involvement. By bringing in student representatives as stakeholders in governance and quality, a degree of involvement that can lead to a mutually beneficial environment for education is nurtured.
Universities need to look at ways to benchmark internal processes in order to modernise and implement process improvements. There is much confusion and debate as to how this can be implemented, however there are real opportunities to bring about change and increase efficiency if institutions focus on transparency and promoting change from within, rather than obsessing about league table results and what other institutions are doing.
There are now more sources than ever before to build an image of an institution, and as universities begin to implement changes around Key Information Sets and the recommendations outlined in the recent White Paper, it is important that the executive retain access to course level data to communicate excellence of teaching in the marketplace.
In conclusion, a stakeholder can be defined on a continuum comparing their level of power and interest. Viewing higher education as a partnership and treating students as powerful highly interested stakeholders is a more productive, beneficial, and agreeable alternative for all parties, and relatively simple changes to current practice can begin to nurture this change in paradigm.