the trend, dare to be nasty
A buyers' market is causing universities to be soft on students,
but it's time to rebel.
Higher education faces a formidable dilemma as it completes its
transition from operating in a sellers' market to one where the
customer is king. The cumulative impact of this transition is to
alter institutional behaviour, attitudes and, most important, the
relationship between students and the university. To put it bluntly,
in today's buyers' market the laws of supply and demand and governmental
influence are able to shape virtually every aspect of university
life. In such circumstances institutional integrity faces a constant
challenge from demanding customers.
The shift from a sellers' to a buyers' market fundamentally alters
the relationship between university and student. In a sellers' market,
students need to compete to gain entry to a university; they understand
that they need to work hard, gain suitable marks and show that they
are worthy of being taken seriously. Once accepted, undergraduates
need to demonstrate a commitment to their work and adopt the expectations
demanded. In a sellers'
market, students need to keep proving themselves to their institution.
In a buyers' market, the relationship is all but reversed. Students,
unless they apply to an elite institution, are under far less pressure
to prove themselves. But many universities, under constant pressure
to increase numbers, face stiff competition for students. In a buyers'
market, they have to show they should be taken seriously. That is
why many universities are obsessed with branding themselves as student-friendly
places offering value for money and an exciting student experience.
But the transition from a buyers' to a sellers' market is not as
black and white as suggested. Now and again, universities had to
compete to gain cash and reputation. Some departments were squeezed
by fashionable subjects and had to reinvent themselves to win more
students. Nor do customers have it all their way today. Students
still need to prove themselves to the top institutions. But even
the elite are influenced by the expectations that typify a buyers'
The problem with a buyers' market is that it distracts institutions
from pursuing their academic role. Unfortunately, the demands of
the customer and those of academic learning are not always harmonious.
That is why universities face a formidable challenge to their moral
and institutional integrity. Revelations about exam boards manipulating
marks to ensure students pass degrees point to practices that are
not confined to a handful of rogue departments. Cash-strapped institutions
are under pressure to attract and hold on to students. That is why
so many departments face intense pressure to inflate grades and
flatter students. Nice academics and universities are more likely
to attract students than those who do not play the game. And putting
students under pressure or not passing them is not nice.
It is simply not realistic to expect universities not to adopt
a pragmatic attitude towards institutional practices. In a world
where the brand is everything, revelations about cheating and the
massaging of grades will continue. Low-grade corruption will be
excused or justified as part of a new pedagogy of inclusivity and
access. New forms of assessment will be invented to test the "entire
student experience", and social promotion will be celebrated
as essential for raising institutional self-esteem. Which is why
we need academics to challenge these practices.
on Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 May 2006