Attaining a university education for many people throughout the world is still a major achievement. Being able to transform and translate your knowledge in order to obtain a degree is not only a noble objective, it has become a necessity in order to have a chance of securing a career. The changing role and nature of universities in providing students with this opportunity is closely linked to what it means to be a student. It is now commonly understood that the pursuit of a university education should not only include acquiring and applying knowledge and achieving academic success, but also supporting this with the development of a whole range of employability skills as well.
Indeed, many universities in the sector are grappling with this in order to (perhaps rightly) become more focused towards being a university ‘of the profession’.
Given this broad context, at a recent talk at Brunel University, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, outlined his vision for the future of the UK HE sector, at the heart of which lies growth. Financially, the latter makes some sense. However this still needs to be balanced with understanding the needs and the nature of students as learners first.
The well-referred to Robbins report suggests that HE sector growth may be achieved through a number of factors which include a greater instruction in skills, cultivating positive learning behaviours, balancing research and teaching, and enabling a common culture and standards for citizenship. All of these vectors can now be seen in abundance within the current HE sector. They also belie the argument from within the sector that, ultimately, students should be inherently seen as learners first – and not necessarily as customers.
We all recognise and know that students come to university to gain an education, skills, lifelong friendships and experiences. The opportunity to translate all of these aspects of curricular and extra-curricular learning towards securing a job and a career, is a major driving force. Viewing students purely as customers challenges this notion but it is difficult to decouple this in an environment where fee income is a key part of an HEI’s bottom line.
So, however many parallels may be drawn between students paying for and then ‘consuming’ knowledge, there is a danger that universities may ignore reinforcing the notion of paying for an education, in favour of paying for a service outright. This is not to say that students should not have a voice or rights based upon the education they pay for. Clearly students have every right to ensure a good student experience and resources for the duration of their studies.
But we must seek to remind ourselves and students that going to university is an opportunity to learn and co-create knowledge – and is not primarily about procuring and consuming a service.
This debate will no doubt continue. Every university will need to balance the principles upon which it provides access to higher education against how it realises income. Identifying students as learners first, as opposed to customers, may however assist in that realisation in a more holistic manner.
Views and opinions expressed are personal and not those of Brunel University