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College Students as Consumers

The Browne Review, a government review of higher education funding that resulted in a decision to nearly triple the amount England’s universities can charge students, has sparked intense debate in the U.K. With tuition fees set to increase to up to £9,000, students are questioning exactly what the reforms will mean. In some respects, higher tuition fees are intended to positively transform students’ relationships with the institutions they attend. One basis for these reforms is the notion that students act as consumers, and that “student choice will drive up quality.” In other words, students—facing increased fees and the sacrifices that go along with meeting financial obligations—will make more purposeful decisions and value their time at university more. Universities, in turn, will be more accountable to students, not only in terms of teaching quality but also in the overall student experience.

Are Students Consumers?

There appears to be a convergence of opinion between administrators and students that the fee increase portends a future in which students will behave more like consumers. According to Christopher Hallas, chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA), the concept of the student experience as exclusively academic is unlikely to endure. According to Hallas, the new environment will force universities and administrators to rethink service provision models and “emulate customer-centered models from the commercial sector.” Aaron Porter, the president of the National Union of Students, predicts that students will launch a “consumer revolution” against universities that are unprepared for the consequences of market forces and higher tuition fees.

The concept of students as consumers—an obscure and somewhat controversial notion—has come to enjoy broad currency in U.K. higher education, but is not without its critics. Writing in The Guardian Higher Education, Paul Greatrix of the University of Nottingham argues that there are fundamental differences between business and higher education. Though students are becoming more demanding, there are several problems with applying the consumer metaphor to higher education, namely:

• Higher education is usually a one-time transaction, and there are few opportunities for repeat sales of the same product.

• Individuals other than the student may be directly involved in purchasing decisions.

• The purchaser (student) typically has minimal knowledge of the product, and does not have the opportunity to ‘test-drive’ it before buying.

• “Who the customer is makes a difference,” Greatrix notes. “Students contribute to the quality of the product by helping to shape it.”

While some see the move toward higher tuition fees as revolutionary, many are wondering whether that much has really changed. In some sense, U.K. students have always been consumers. Students already pay tuition fees, but even if these monetary costs did not exist, students would still incur opportunity costs. Quite simply, students could be doing something else during the years they spend at university. With increased tuition fees, the only difference is that now students are in a position in which they will incur higher financial costs. Lucy Snow, a student journalist writing in an article published in The Guardian, writes: “University offers us a product – made up of libraries, academic experts, careers advice – and, rightly or wrongly, we pay what the government deems is an appropriate price.” Snow expresses reserved support for the notion of students as consumers, adding, “Students need to be conscious consumers so we can get the best out of our three years … [I]t’s not what your university can do for you, but rather what you can do for yourself – with the resources and support provided.”

Within student services specifically, the move toward treating students as consumers has focused on a shift from a bureaucratic model to a customer service model. From a purely practical standpoint, excellence in student services makes sense as an institutional investment. Well-funded, well-staffed, and well-directed student service departments help students meet their educational and social objectives. A strategic enrollment management plan must take student services into serious consideration, as these services are the ‘face’ presented to both potential and current students. A 2009 study found that overall student satisfaction has been linked to:

• Higher student retention rates,
• A more positive word-of-mouth reputation for the institution, and
• A greater percentage of alumni who give regularly to the institution.