Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Terrifying Prospect: Student-As-Consumer Meets British Universities

The student as consumer is an old thing. Between 1869 and 1909, Charles Eliot drove a number of innovations at Harvard, aligning the curriculum with vocational needs, allowing greater student freedom in terms of accommodation and social life, and even giving in, reluctantly, to College football: However, it is one innovation that he tried but failed to get through, that of reduction of credits required for college graduation, is possibly the most significant precursor of trends in Higher Education. Eliot was indeed criticised for his attempt to reduce the number of credits so that students can attain graduation within three, and not the customary four, years. The Faculty Board turned it down, a momentous defeat for a powerful college President at the height of his prestige. In fact, Eliot's successor as Harvard President, Abbott Lawrence Lowell would say, "May we not feel that the most vital measure for saving the college is not to shorten its duration, but to ensure that it would be worth saving?"

The debate, long forgotten, may ring a bell with a number of English universities today, who, caught between the current government's incessant policy juggling and incredibly smart and totally incomprehensible and unpredictable funding regime, have embarked on a path of creating two year degrees - a further shortening of duration from the customary three years in England. The reason, indeed, is cost: The students are now expected to bear the full cost of their education, albeit cushioned, for the moment, with an income-contingent loan. This sudden transformation of the student as a paying customer prompts the idea to save money for them by compressing the course (though this does not involve reduction of required credits) in two years. Indeed, this strategy itself would have cost quite a bit of money, invested in strategic planning, writing of reports, payment to strategy consultants etc. Indeed, students have to pay for all this, and savings have to be made, therefore, from the teaching time. This has now prompted a rediscovery of love for 30 credit modules, somewhat cumbersome as this combines disparate subjects (Economics and Marketing, Accounting and Psychology), which reduces the teaching hour requirements somewhat and allow consolidation of class sizes. In short, we are in the middle of a great panic induced by the imaginary arrival of the 'student as consumer': With all this, it is indeed appropriate to pause and 'to ensure that (the university) would be worth saving'.

It may not be, or at least a large part of it. The headline figure says that the applications for university places, despite a demographic bulge at the current time, is down by 9.9%. However, the headline figure obscures a more nuanced reality: Certain courses, mainly humanities and non-European languages, are coping with near catastrophic fall in applications, and certain universities, including London's University of the Arts (a combination of schools including the famed St Martins) and the University of Creative Arts, have fallen out of favour with applicants [and experiencing 20% and 30% fall in applications respectively]. And, this is not just about the fall of the arts and humanities: A cursory glance at the Winners and Losers list of this year's UCAS application indicates, rather jarringly, a steep growth in applications to private institutions like BPP University College and University of Buckingham, whereas a fall in many mid- to lower rung public universities. Closer analysis of this trend will surely emerge in the days to come, but the overwhelming shift seems to be towards smaller, nimbler schools offering more vocationally oriented programmes than their more traditional peers (for example, smaller and less reputed universities, Anglia Ruskin University, London Metropolitan University and even the University of West London, seem to be gaining in this environment).

One may question whether this is desirable, but we can't ignore the question anymore. The market, once invited to the party, always seems to win, and higher education is no exception. We may be experiencing a terminal cataclysm of the British Public Universities: A very predictable crisis in an out-of-touch system triggered by late but fundamental redefinition of what higher education is for. Unfortunately, the answer is getting shaped by the events from outside the academia. Led mostly by Vice Chancellors and Executive Teams from a different era, the universities have so far shown only limited capacity to participate, let alone influence, the public debate: Their reactions were marked by bureaucratic fiddling rather than courage to define the terms of the debate.

However, one may not be despondent: Student as a consumer may be a good thing. Higher Education has always served the needs of the time. One may moan about an imaginary golden age, but when the same age is defined as Higher Education for the privileged, it does not sound that glamorous anymore. One must accept that Higher Education has evolved - from teaching students to be clerics, to teaching students to be citizens and public administrators, and now to teaching them to be consumers. One can see these phases in America: This has now reached Britain.

This was a long time coming anyway, and was prevented by the ubiquitous welfare state which is on its deathbed now. The problem is that when this arrives, it arrives in all its intensity, a fundamental transformation of the whole landscape within the space of two years. Change, when comes without the institutional capability to adopt, which is precisely the condition of the British universities today, can be terrifying: The sector failed to provide a coherent response to changes altogether. The response from British HE to the arrival of the markets is to look for corners of protectionism - to protest against private sector participation in education, forcing the government to delay its Higher Education bill due to be tabled this summer. The more the VCs try to cling to their disappearing world of cosy protectionism, the sector will sink further into despair. It is indeed time for the universities to step out and face the market - as some of the pioneering ones like London Metropolitan University have already done - and embrace the new mantra. However, this does not seem to be in the DNA of the British universities, and they must therefore learn the lessons in the hard way.

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