It was reported this week that, for the first time, vice-chancellors at British universities will have to negotiate ‘charters’ with student leaders, laying out the minimum standards that the students can expect. This is largely a response to tuition fees, which have left many students feeling they are not getting value for money in higher education.
This is welcome news on a couple of levels. Firstly, it is a vindication of the view that tuition fees would make higher education institutions more accountable and responsive to their customers – i.e. their students. It also suggests that the introduction of fees has made students engage more with their education, taking it more seriously and aiming to get the most out of it.
On a more basic level, it’s good to see British universities getting their act together. Being honest here, I went to an excellent university, and received an education that would probably command a very high market value. But I still can’t help thinking that a reading list and a CD of lectures could have achieved much the same thing at much lower expense. Students, even in good UK universities, are too often taken for granted, and not actually taught very much at all. In this respect, our educational institutions pale in comparison to American ones.
All that said, we shouldn’t get too excited about ‘student charters’. Yes, they are a step in the right direction, but they are still no excuse for real market forces. As our recent book The Broken University suggested, a free market higher education sector would truly empower students, allowing them to demand a real service from the universities they attended, and also giving them useful information (in the form of price signals) about which courses to choose and which institutions to prefer.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that students and academics alike tend to oppose further ‘marketization’ of higher education – no one likes to have their free lunches taken away. But it is instructive to note that the University of Buckingham – the UK’s only genuinely private university – consistently tops student satisfaction polls. That, not student charters, is the real future for British higher education.