Students as customers?

Should students who enroll on university journalism courses be treated any differently to delegates who sign up for training conferences and events?

In the higher and further education sector, there is no tradition of a direct contractual relationship between teacher and learner. Rather, the ‘deal’is between student and institution. Colleges run lectures, seminars and workshops, and reward those who complete courses with qualifications.

The teacher’s contract is with their employer. The tutor is responsible for delivering the syllabus, and assessing the student’s work. The college has a contract with the student to run the course as advertised.

Any university which fails to deliver what was promised in the prospectus risks being taken to court, but the student will lose the claim if they haven’t fulfilled their academic responsibilities, including turning up for lectures and seminars.

If the event is managed by a consultant or private company, and money changes hands, then it is a typical two-way contract between trainer and trainee. The student is buying a service, without any obligation on his or her part. The fee-paying delegate is a customer with consumer rights in the general sense of the term.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, says: ‘If you attend a training day which promises to update you on the latest aspect of the law or public finance, and the speaker is inaudible or simply does not stick to the point, then it is a clear case. But it is not the same for a student who commits to a three-year university course, because of the interactivity that is expected.”

It is apparent that the concept of the student as customer is creeping into the university sector. In an era of university league tables, some marketing departments and admissions tutors are under pressure to recruit ever higher numbers of paying ‘clients”. There is a flavour of competition in the air.

Is it pragmatic, or counter-productive, for universities to encourage or even require teaching staff to treat students as consumers?

Tony Blair’s vision of 50 per cent of young people attending university has driven an increase in undergraduate and postgraduate courses (the latest journalism course is set to start at Leeds Metropolitan University this autumn) funded in England and Wales by students taking out loans to pay for their tuition fees.

On one hand, students may respond positively to an institution that acts as though it has a customer ethos at its heart. But on the other hand, customers buy products and services. Qualifications are earned. They are not distributed with a view to boosting the institution’s standing in the league tables.

Customers expect to get the best for their money, but students do not deserve to pass their courses just because they have paid for it. And tutors do not work for the students.

The professor of communications at the University of Lincoln, Brian Winston, says: ‘The notion that our students are customers is frankly pretty absurd. They should not be able to reject it because they don’t like it – which they could do if they were customers.’Investigative journalist Tessa Mayes says: ‘Course attendees should be called students – because the relationship between the teacher and the person on the course is a creative one to do with teaching and learning. It has nothing to do with money.

‘To use the term ‘customer’ would degrade this relationship into a financial, less-creative one, undermining the creative relationship. Of course the student pays money for the course, but that is a different relationship and should be treated separately.”

Lawyers disagree about the extent to which students are able to assert consumer rights and sue universities which do not come up to expectations.

A contract between a student and a university commences as soon as a place on a course is offered, but it is more of a ‘mutual obligation”, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s book Universities and Students, co-authored by a solicitor with a national reputation for tackling universities on behalf of client Jaswinder Gill.

He and academic colleague GR Evans point out that both sides are equal, but the university is not a business in the sense of a supermarket or a car dealership. A store cannot insist that a customer makes a purchase at the fish counter, any more than a showroom can repossess the car after it has been paid for.

The journalism student is expected to progress from stage to stage, and risks being thrown off the course for failing exams or submitting work late. That is not what happens in the commercial marketplace, Evans and Gill argue.

Andrew Barraclough of Cardiff-based Sinclair Solicitors specialises in advising students unhappy with their university experiences.

He says: ‘Students can claim loss of earnings or future losses if the university does not meet its obligations. We say the student is a consumer, in the same way as someone making a purchase at Asda, and there can be an action for breach of contract.

‘However, students cannot sue over issues involving academic judgement unless that judgement is irrational.”

Both the delegate at a one-day training conference and the student on a three-year journalism course pay for their education. But the difference is that the university offers a service, not a product, and the student has a legal duty to participate, whereas the delegate need only attend.

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