Learning cannot be bought

New student charters in UK universities turn lecturers into service providers and students into consumers.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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When new students arrive at a UK university this autumn and pay their tuition fees, they will most likely be presented with a copy of their institution’s student charter. Such charters take various forms: it may be a booklet with colourful photographs (Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln); a one-page, closely typed, bullet-pointed leaflet (University of Brighton); a more lengthy and detailed statement of the institution’s aims and objectives (University of Kent); or web pages proclaiming ‘Our Commitment’ for staff and students (University of Sheffield). Irrespective of style, all charters formally state what students can expect from the university and its lecturers, and in return, what the institution expects from them. In this way, charters turn the experience of university into a contract whereby payment and certain behaviours are met by corresponding entitlements. This is entirely detrimental to the concept of higher education.

The production of student charters has been encouraged by government ministers who, in 2010, established the Student Charter Group to explore the use of student agreements. The group’s final report, published in January 2011, recommended each institution should have a charter. Later that year this was reinforced in a government white paper, Students at the Heart of the System, which called for all institutions to have charters that provide ‘information for students when they are starting a course – and during the course – so they know what they can expect and what is expected of them’, in order to ‘establish clear mutual expectations, and help monitor the student experience and how relationships are working’.

Yet there is nothing new about the idea of a student charter. In 1993, the then Conservative government published a whole series of charters to set out what members of the public could expect to receive from various state services. On the one hand, this could be seen as a harmless attempt at propaganda: little extra money was promised, people were just informed of what they already had. On the other hand, such charters also represented an attempt to renegotiate the relationship between the state and the public. In the language of charters, citizens became service-users, clients and customers. The Student Charter of 1993, a thin, colourful pamphlet aimed at prospective students, provided a formal statement that students were, alongside local businesses, the ‘customers’ of a university that was intended to ‘deliver a service’ to them.

The 1993 student charter is one of the first official government documents to describe students as ‘customers’. There is a clear statement that such customers should receive ‘better value for money’ and an indication as to how this should be determined: ‘You should know in advance how your course should be taught and assessed.’ The aim of the 1993 charter is to make ‘everyone more aware of what is provided for the large amount of public money that goes into higher education’. This established the idea of higher education as a quid pro quo: public money was spent in expectation of a clear return. This was also to be the nature of the relationship between universities and students. Students had the ‘right’ to receive a service but, in turn, were expected to exercise responsibility with the public money spent on them: ‘Customers of universities and colleges also have responsibilities and the charter reminds you of some of them.’

Since 1993 there has been a move away from seeing higher education as an expenditure of public money with an expected public return, to an expenditure of private money (in the form of tuition fees) with an expected private return in the form of higher wages, greater job security and satisfaction. If higher education was simply a service with students as customers then the demand for charters could be considered an example of students exercising ‘consumer rights’. However, demand for charters is driven entirely from national government.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) claims it is ‘giving students power to hold universities to account’. This suggests government ministers see students as vulnerable and institutions as potentially exploitative. The form of arbitration, the institutional charter, reflects the political elite’s belief that higher education is now considered to be a private contractual investment between individuals and institutions. This belief changes the nature of higher education in a number of ways.

By focusing upon the quid pro quo of what you ‘get’ in return for what you pay, charters formalise the status of students as consumers in a way that fee paying alone does not. Rather than universities being free to challenge the idea that a degree becomes an entitlement upon receipt of payment, charters strengthen this notion. The provision of quantifiable information on contact hours, assessment patterns and employment prospects suggests students are correct to perceive of a degree as a product. Lecturers are presented as service providers. Those who fail to provide students with a good enough service are brought into line through the use of charters which set out the exact nature of a student’s entitlement.

But charters are more than just a response to tuition fees. In setting out ‘mutual expectations’, charters establish a contractual relationship whereby students’ expectations as to the level of service they will receive are matched by expectations upon them to behave in a particular way, for example by attending lectures and seminars regularly, or meeting assessment deadlines. The University of Sheffield’s charter lists things that students and staff will commit to do ‘to create an outstanding student experience’. For example, students are expected to ‘be prepared for and not miss out on scheduled learning’ while members of staff are expected to ‘keep-up-to date with developments in learning, teaching and assessment’. This suggests learning is a guaranteed outcome in return for particular behaviours such as attendance at lectures and meeting assessment deadlines. Students at Bishop Grosseteste University College students are told to ‘participate actively in seminars, workshops and other group work’. The extent of intellectual engagement thus becomes irrelevant to the behaviour demonstrated.

Learning at university occurs primarily as a result of individual commitment and dedication. This commitment can be encouraged and directed through relationships between fellow students and between students and academics. This is recognised by the Student Charter Group which emphasises ‘the importance of partnership between staff and students’. Yet in seeking to use charters to formalise and regulate relationships between academics and students such partnerships are undermined. Students at the Heart of the System states: ‘Charters should emphasise that to pursue higher education is to belong to a learning community.’ This suggests that engaging, exciting and collaborative academic relationships can be imposed upon institutions.

The Student Charter Group claims charters ‘will help to provide consistency of practice across different subject areas’. The implication is that inconsistency of practice is detrimental to students. This makes no allowance for different lecturers to adopt idiosyncratic approaches according to their personality or, perhaps more significantly, their academic discipline. Forcing lecturers to teach in line with consistent practice is unlikely to engender passion. Despite the commitment of staff at Sheffield to ‘provide inspirational, engaging and knowledgeable teaching’, spontaneity, passion and enthusiasm are all difficult qualities to legislate into existence.

Academic relationships depend upon trust between student and lecturer in order for intellectual risk-taking and learning to take place. This trust is eroded by charters. Lecturers are irrelevant to the process of producing charters: vice-chancellors and senior management teams negotiate with student leaders at each university and college the standards that they will promise to deliver to undergraduate and postgraduate students. There is an assumption that students and lecturers cannot be trusted to negotiate such relationships for themselves but need some form of contract for mutual protection.

Students at the University of Brighton are told their lecturers will ‘assess and mark work fairly, consistent with clearly stated learning objectives’. Such a statement encourages students to question the professionalism of their lecturers; it raises the possibility their work may not be assessed fairly. It also suggests good academic work meets predetermined learning outcomes rather than challenging preconceived assumptions. Similarly, students at Bishop Grosseteste are told to: ‘Ensure you are dedicated and conscientious in your studies.’ This may make students question whether their interest is shared by their peers and may encourage more cynical lecturers to doubt their students have anything other than instrumental motivations.

Academic relationships are further eroded because charters infantilise students and this makes it difficult for lecturers to then perceive of students as potential intellectual collaborators. The University of Kent expects students to ‘be attentive and orderly in class’; the University of Sheffield asks students to commit to: ‘take care of myself and my health’. Bishop Grosseteste’s charter tells students not to ‘engage in activities which put you or others at risk’. Yet the ability to take risks is necessary for intellectual and personal growth. Education can challenge everything students hold to be true about the world. By encouraging lecturers to see students as vulnerable children, charters can prevent students from experimenting, learning and growing up while at university.

Joanna Williams is author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought, which will be published by Continuum in November and is available to pre-order here.

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Topics Politics


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