The word from the Westminster Higher Education Forum last week confirms what most of us already knew: that more students have challenged their grades and complained about aspects of their education since the introduction of £9,000 fees than they ever did in the days of subsidised university places.
Of course, it’s not a coincidence. According to the rules of economics, those who pay for services are justified in expecting value for money. Just one look at ‘university value for money’ on Google and it is clear that getting a return on an educational investment is seen as a key selling point.
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students (2011-12), expressed it well: “No-one should be surprised that students are more demanding when they are forced to treat education as something they buy rather than as a process of study, debate and understanding.” So, again, it is no coincidence that last week, at the Westminster Higher Education Forum, the subject of student complaints was explored in some depth.
According to Karen Stephenson, a partner in the education team at Weightmans solicitors, who contributed to the forum, the increasingly litigious nature of student complaints reflects the move towards a ’transactional relationship’ between students and their universities, which academics should acknowledge. The term ‘transactional relationship’ in sales and marketing has a negative connotation, mainly because of the implication that delivering a service simply in exchange for money is less desirable than a relationship that is built on trust. Effective ‘relationship selling’ is said to be personal, professional, value creating, and built on trust.
Good relationships with academic teaching staff should never be undersold, therefore. In student satisfaction surveys, this personal interaction is usually regarded as one of the most important aspect of the educational experience.
There will be many in the Higher Education sector that prefer to consider higher education as a nurturing process by which knowledge is imparted and young minds developed. These are the individuals who shudder at the thought of education being seen as a business transaction, and students as customers.
University can and should, however, be both of these: a great educational experience which also represents good value for money as a transactional investment.