Last week I went to another Alliance university, Bournemouth, to give a lecture on what we can do, as a sector, to make the reality live up to the rhetoric of the White Paper in order to put students more profoundly at the heart of the system.
“If we are serious about putting students at the heart of the system we would need to look beyond this consumerist approach.”
The Coalition Government’s complete overhaul of the student finance system is, after all, not only based on our diminished public finances but on the widespread perception, held by successive Ministers, that the quality of the student experience had become a secondary consideration by many in the sector. A wide range of organisations, the CBI as well as the National Student Forum (now defunct), the Select Committee as well as the Secretary of State, all expressed concern that priorities in higher education had shifted away from the provision of high quality learning and teaching. The answer, Ministers – and Lord Browne – decided, was to put the finance in the hands of students to drive demand and improve quality. A new ‘consumer’ based relationship would be born.
In Bournemouth, I argued that if we are serious about putting students at the heart of the system we would need to look beyond this consumerist approach. In Alliance universities we are working hard to ensure that students understand and take advantage of the widest possible range of the activities on offer, exploiting the potential for their academic work to connect with employers or with university staff and students overseas. The relationship that students must have with the University, through its professionals, is that of co-creator – not the much contested term, consumer – if they are to shape their own experience and derive as much benefit from higher education as possible.
“It is not a simple consumerist relationship – students have to be involved in the development of their programme of activities.”
Students look for all kinds of additional opportunities to enhance their academic achievements and it is the case that they increasingly value work experience, especially when that work experience is related to their area of study. For students in subjects like History the absence of a professional body or an obvious set of professional destinations need not be a hindrance to engagement with employers. Students in that discipline at Oxford Brookes, for instance, have had all kinds of project and work based opportunities with the extensive heritage organisations based in Oxford. We have the evidence that graduates are much more likely to get their first choice of job if they take up some of the rich opportunities – for study or work abroad, research based project work, volunteering, placement learning, leadership in teams or societies, language learning – which are a part of the University premium that distinguishes us from new, for profit entrants to the market. It is not a simple consumerist relationship – students have to be involved in the development of their programme of activities in and out of the classroom or library.
But one of the most striking things about this approach is that it is not new, but built on decades, even centuries, of experience. Alliance universities have a rich heritage in this approach, many formed in the 19th Century to respond to the skills needed in the then changing and growing industrial economy. Many of the features of higher education 20 years ago in institutions like Oxford Brookes – modular degrees, accreditation of work based learning, engagement of the professions in curriculum development, access to personalised learning – are common today in all our universities. So much of the work we were doing then remains central to the added value of a university education today.
“Time spent in higher education is not all about employment but about acquiring the capacity for reinvention.”
In 1991 our 5000 undergraduates were on individual programmes of study, tailored to their interests and needs. Today students need to exercise many kinds of fine discriminations – as well as expending the blood, sweat and tears required by serious intellectual effort – about which of the wide range of opportunities available to them will add most to their experience and their future prospects. Time spent in higher education is not all about employment but about acquiring the capacity for reinvention – of self, of society – in the broadest possible sense. It is about developing the capacity for rational argument, for well-founded research, for articulate and persuasive advocacy. But, equally as important is making the most of the opportunities on offer at university allowing students to develop to the full the potential for leading a substantial and well-rounded life (see examples on our student stories site) – an ambition to which we all aim to contribute and not one that can be reduced to a simple, consumer transaction.