Today’s student: customer, investor, learner?

A press release landed in my inbox this week with a typically ambiguous headline.

‘STUDENTS 1 – 0 UNIVERSITIES’ it read. Sounds a bit antagonistic, I thought, clicking on open. It turned out to refer to a piece of research conducted by a graduate recruitment service, which had found that 46% of the 596 students it had quizzed felt their university was overrated. The poll, the agency opined, served as a ‘timely reminder to universities that failing to deliver on the promise is all too easy’ at the point when the new funding regime is making competition for students a key consideration.

I’m constantly struck, when writing about higher education, by how entirely alien the university experience feels compared to when I was there in the late 1990s. Over the last year I’ve increasingly felt that that disparity is about to get even starker, and, of all the differences, this, perhaps, is the most fundamental: the sense of the student not just as a learner, but as a customer, not just a young person on the next stage of their education, but an investor, surveying the market, deciding how much they’re willing to stake, and naturally expecting a decent return.

That return, of course, is not intellectual agility for its own sake, but employability. When KMPG surveyed 1,000 students, school leavers and parents recently, 68% said that the most important thing about going to university was getting a qualification that led to a well-paid job. Just 12% went for the apparently embarrassingly anachronistic ideal of ‘getting a rounded education’.

The gulf with my own experience is hardly surprising: I started university in the last year before tuition fees were introduced. But as a wannabe journalist, thinking and writing about them quickly became part of my life, and has remained so ever since; melodically-challenged chants of ‘education is a right, not a privilege’ feel like the recurring soundtrack to my reporting career.

Those early stories feel rather quaint these days. ‘RIP Higher Education October 98’ reads the banner pictured hanging from a college window alongside my account of the protest billed by the student paper as ‘Oxford’s last stand against fees’ in May that year. (‘It was a really damn noisy march,’ was the curiously underwhelming conclusion of the student union president on this supposedly momentous occasion).

In the first week of the autumn term, when the £1,000 fees (imagine, just £1,000!) came into force – and in the same issue a feature about mobile phones boldly declared ‘everyone knows someone who’s got one’ – the story was the possibility of freshers planning to withhold payment of their fees in protest.

By spring four rebels were still standing firm, bringing the university an unexpected reputation for radicalism, but by Easter the student body’s enthusiasm for their cause had all but fizzled out.

By now editor of the paper, I wrote an editorial commenting on all ill-attended picket that warned, with all the sparkling insight of a sleep-deprived 20-year-old: ‘The tuition fee issue does need to be kept alive, because even if it seems acceptable to some people now, it will escalate.’

Thirteen years later, with most would-be students now facing a bill of £9,000 a year, I am still asking the same questions about what fees will mean for who gets a university education, and how they go about it. Whenever I’ve spoken to prospective students in the last year, the same theme has recurred: a hope the course they choose turns out to be ‘worth the money’.

Higher fees won’t necessarily put them off – they’re smart enough to understand that it’s not an upfront cost – but they are at great pains to make sure that when they’re paying back that gargantuan loan, they’re doing it as quickly as possible, and in a job it was worth taking on such debt for.

Recently I was trying to find out if school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds were taking into account what kind of financial help – discounts on fees or cash bursaries – different universities offered as they made their applications. In fact, it turned out that at that stage they were much more focused on choosing a degree that would pay dividends. ‘If the course is good it should lead to me getting a really good job, so the money I’m taking out now shouldn’t be an issue,’ was a typical comment. They might consider variables like financial support further down the line, they conceded, but even then the message was clear: employability is all.

Of course students should have high expectations of university; of course they should be well-taught and feel their teachers are interested in their progress; and of course having a degree should improve their career chances. None of this means I don’t have the greatest respect for institutions striving to make sure their students get what they pay for.

But educating someone is not the same as helping them get a job.

How will university life change if the relationship between student and academic morphs into one between client and employee, and learners assess the curriculum with one eye on how relevant it will be when they go job-hunting? Will more of those who aren’t getting the grades they think they deserve be inclined to complain it’s because they’re not being taught properly? What about arts and humanities, already battered by the removal of funding for teaching?

The subjects that held up best in applications for the first year under the new fees regime were those tending to lead to lucrative careers: medicine, maths, sciences, engineering, law.

Are the subjects traditionally most closely associated with learning for learning’s sake doomed to become the become the preserve of mainly middle class students at elite institutions?

I believe students will suffer under this pressure too. It’s a terrible responsibility, at the age of 17 or 18, to decide what you want from your degree studies, to pick exactly the right course, and do everything perfectly when you get there. Presumably if you’re paying 27 grand for a university education, you’re far less likely than previous generations to squander your time on booze and soft drugs before getting kicked out half-way through – and that’s no bad thing in my book. Just because education is a right, not a privilege, doesn’t mean you should be blasé about it.

But there are plenty of other reasons why university doesn’t work out for some students on the first go: the wrong course, the wrong halls, the wrong people, not to mention all the practical and emotional challenges of your first experience of independent living and studying. It hardly seems the fairest time to expect them not to make mistakes. And I can’t imagine turning up in freshers’ week, gritting your teeth and thinking ‘it had better be worth it’, is much fun.

How cruel too that this era of suffocating compulsion to make your degree pay should coincide with some of the worst ever prospects for getting a job – in the final quarter of 2011 one in every five new graduates was unemployed – and the increasing necessity of doing unpaid work before you are even considered worthy of being rewarded for your efforts.

When I was at university the dreaded internship was barely heard of, something reserved only for the most chillingly ambitious of would-be management consultants.

Journalism has long been a career where work experience is key. But in my era that meant a fortnight on a local paper in any town or city where you had relatives, in the holidays, not three months subsisting on travel expenses alone in the heart of London, if you’re lucky enough to be able to live there rent-free.

I read a suggestion recently that any graduates looking for work should be using Twitter to sell themselves, and felt a real pang of sympathy.

One minute we’re warning them not to jeopardise their future prospects by posting ill-advised party pics on Facebook, the next we’re expecting them to be masters of social media manipulation.

Naturally the pressure is on careers services too to beef up their offerings and with them their institutions’ performance in the employability league tables. While 82% of the KMPG survey respondents were happy with the teaching they were getting, only 48% were satisfied with the careers advice on offer. More and more are services offering specialised training in key job-bagging skills like networking. But it is still academics who’ll be in the spotlight if particular options can’t deliver the real-world returns students expect, especially when, under the government’s proposals to make universities ‘more accountable to students than ever before’, universities have to put employment and salaries data for all undergraduate courses on their websites.

I’m sure the writer of the ‘STUDENTS 1 – 0 UNIVERSITIES’ headline was only being playful, looking for a teaser that would catch the reader’s eye. But to me it brought home perhaps the most toxic effect of the marketisation of higher education: the pitting of students and teachers against one another. I can’t believe that creates the kind of nurturing environment in which young minds flourish.

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