Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Just in case you missed, it Peter Mandelson has spelt out his vision for universities......

Yes, we know more degrees need to target mature and part-time students rather than 18-year olds, but it is the call for a "consumer revolution in HE" that concerns me. Will it really help to treat employers and students as customers? How does this square up with the evidence that most HE students (whatever their goals, age, background, digital literacy......) still want and need guidance and structure to their learning?

Luckily, there are people much more qualified than me to talk on this subject. JISC's online conference started on the 24th November and I have just listened to the Keynote session lead by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe.

Helen Beetham challenged the "consumer" model that it being touted about. She argues

"A consumer model sees learners' needs and expectations as one and the same thing....Find out what learners want - or employers, in another version - and deliver it. But we know learning isn't like that. If we see learning in the highest sense as self-reflection, self-realisation, self-transformation, we see that needs may be met by challenging expectations, and that both will change if deep learning is taking place."

If you want to find out more, these resources may be of interest: Learning Literacies for a digital age wiki LLiDA) (Learners Experience of E-Learning)


  1. It is not clear to me why a more "consumer" lead approach (whatever that means) precludes self-reflection, self-realisation or self-transformation. There seems to be knee jerk reaction to the word "consumer" going on here. As I understand it the fundamental aim is to try to make HE more responsive to those it supposed to serve i.e. students, employers, parents and society as a whole. The idea of service seems to be at the bottom of the various arguments with some seeing themselves as accountable to no one, locked away in their ivory towers thinking deep thoughts. This rather elitist model might have been defensible sometime in the distant past but in era of mass HE funded by the state or students and their parents this is no longer the case. How responsiveness and accountability is achieved is one argument, the need for it is not. It seems inevitable as students and their parents are asked to pay directly more of the costs of courses that this pressure will rise. The idea that being consumers implies being passive is clearly wrong. Have folk not heard of GM foods! In fact I’m finding it difficult to think of a more supplier dominated sector than HE. Going to university is a choice (an increasingly expensive one) and one that students should make on an informed basis. Not all institutions or courses are the same. We know that and so do students. How the different variables that influence a student’s choice should be interpreted is a matter for debate, clearly league tables are not sufficient.

  2. The problem I've always had with the term consumer, is that it implies that students have some sort of right to a degree, should they pay the fees. I agree that HE is not exactly consumer-focused, but do share some of the anxieties with this term that you allude to. My preferred metaphor (sorry can't remember who came up with this), is to look at enrolment in HE as being akin to joining a gym. Yes you have access to the equipment, facilities and support that you might need to help you get fit, but you will only ever achieve your aims if you do some regular and rigorous exercise.

    Incidentally, one definition given of consumer in the OED is "A person who or thing which devours, wastes, or destroys;" - not that you would want to describe any of our students like that!

  3. I like the gym metaphor. At least one of the Delivery projects I think is looking at coaching. Interestingly no one seems to be expecting personal trainers to solve the obesity problem. But education seems to be the solution to a host of social ills. Likewise my doctor, lawyer, accountant etc make it very clear that they advise and I decide. Consumption in many service industries (education?) involves active participation by the producer/supplier and those in receipt of the service. Consumers do not only destroy they can also co-create.