Do students love themselves too much? That was a central point in a recent article published by an academic complaining about the rise of student satisfaction as an important measure in higher education performance. Over the last little while, it seems there has been growing criticism of student satisfaction and students who take the view that they are paying customers.
We thought we would discuss a couple of recent examples and attempt to find a middle ground.
Who loves themselves most?
In her article, The politics of student satisfaction, Assistant Professor Elizabeth Nixon from the University of Nottingham argues that students are not in a position to make good choices for themselves…
“Funds follow student choice of university which, in effect, passes responsibility to the least experienced and the yet to be learned.”
…that student satisfaction is not a worthy metric of higher education performance…
“Student satisfaction is an irrational term; the satisfaction of the learner is not and has never been associated with high quality intellectual development that necessarily involves challenge, struggle and discomfort, within the teacher and students’ joint enquiries into the world.”
…and indeed that focusing on student satisfaction feeds students’ love of themselves…
“There are also signs that a marketised higher education institution fosters an adversarial culture that increases the expression of more aggressive behaviour and one that feeds student satisfactions of a profoundly narcissistic nature.
Entering the higher education environment highly accustomed to making choices as an omniscient consumer preoccupied with the self, the realisation of dependence on tutors in a massified higher education sector can inflict a blow to students’ narcissism, prompting demands driven not by self-interest but by self-love.”
The full article is recommended reading as it provides a useful insight into the student experience – imagine being a student in an environment where any expression of dissatisfaction was seen as a product of your own self-love? In fact, it may be that the realisation of dependence on students can inflict a blow to tutors’ narcissism.
What the article does effectively is demonstrate the contempt for students held by some in the academy and is an expression of frustration at the rebalancing of the power dynamic between students and tutors. The UK is considering establishing an Office for Students to be the champion of students in the higher education sector. If ever there was an illustration of why this is so badly needed, it’s Dr Nixon’s article.
The customer isn’t always right?
It is true that there will be those students who abuse their very recently-acquired power (as academics have theirs over the years) and a better article which discusses some of the uglier impacts of student demands can be found here.
Still told from the perspective of the academic, My students have paid £9000 and now they think they own me is a more straight-forward, less condescending plea for reasonable behaviour, expectations and demands from students. The anonymous author outlines some extreme (and downright strange) demands made by students of them and their colleagues.
“As I made my way to my office at 7.30am last Thursday, I noticed an A4 poster stuck to the lift door. Then I noticed one on the wall. And one on the notice board. Then one on my classroom door. In fact, they were tacked to nearly every available surface along the corridor. And they all bore the same statement: ‘All I’m asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay you £9,000 a year.'”
Employers also report that graduates seem to have an increased sense of entitlement over previous generations and are often not willing to do more basic tasks. The behaviour described by the anonymous academic and the experiences of employers are the downside of today’s student-as-customer emphasis in the higher education system. It is the consequence of so much of the cost being borne by the student. Of course they feel entitled. Of course they feel like their needs should be met. Of course they feel like they should get a decent job on graduating because that is what they have been promised by institutions over and over and over.
It is crazy to think that anybody would hand over £9,000 a year for years and be relaxed about bad experiences and just accept it or come out the other end and be happy about doing a job running the photocopier. This is not to say that all the students’ demands and expectations are realistic (shaped as they are by paying a lot of money and marketing promises made to them), but the fact they have them should be no surprise to anybody who has handed tens of thousands of dollars over to an organisation for something in return.
How do we find the right balance?
So, what to do? Both students and academics need to be respected; expectations and demands need to be reasonable.
The higher education system needs more options, which enables students to get the outcome they want (a better job, for most of them) in a way that is quicker, more affordable and more effective (employers regularly complain graduates aren’t ready – and it’s not for not spending enough time studying).
Dr Nixon observes…
“In vocational contexts, students show a lack of critical perspective, subordinate socio-economic inequities to individual monetised returns and tend to hold an anti-scholarly sentiment.”
While this statement reeks of condescension, it is true that many students are preoccupied with getting the knowledge and skills they need for a job, a career and a financially sound future for themselves, their children and families. Being financially able to raise a family, provide for them and contribute to their communities is what Dr Nixon means when she talks pejoratively of “individual monetised returns”.
There is the anxiety among students that they have to pay and that they have to succeed in order to get anywhere in the world. Don’t get a degree? You’ll live a life of failure with the contempt of your peers and you’ll die poor. This is a reality previous generations did not have to contend with. Once upon a time, getting a job was just about as simple as knocking on a door. Now the message is, you have to go into higher education (which you have to pay through the nose for) in order to get any job with a career future.
We need to create more options. This may mean fewer people go to university, or study for a shorter period and this runs contrary to the financial interests of the institutions. But it may be better for quite a number of students.
We’ll close by saying that students who question and challenge their tutors don’t necessarily love themselves too much. Some of the tutors do. Not all tutors who refuse to give in to unreasonable demands are providing a “bad customer experience”. Some of the students just feel over-entitled – but we’ve created that problem.
Both sides need to have more compassion for the other. All of this tension is occurring in a system and institutions made for another time that desperately needs an overhaul.