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UCU warns against reducing students to consumers in plans for university shake up

3 November 2009

UCU today said it was deeply concerned by the language used by the government ahead of its unveiling of a new framework for higher education.

The union said reducing students and staff to customer and cashier was losing sight of what universities are actually for and how higher education works. The union further warned that a student-centric assessment system could lead to grade inflation, but no improvements in standards.
Responding to the plans trailed by Lord Mandelson and comments from David Willetts this morning, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'The government and the opposition are in danger of creating a worrying agenda that is focused purely on trying to justify the cost of a degree.

'Universities are supposed to be about challenging perceived wisdom, not just ensuring a consumer is happy.'
Sally Hunt
UCU general secretary
'Staff in our universities have built a world class university system on public funding levels which are below average, compared to the US and competitor countries in Europe. Further marketisation of higher education will threaten that status. Universities are supposed to be about challenging perceived wisdom, not just ensuring a consumer is happy.
'Staff need the confidence to be forthright and honest in their comments and assessment of work. The US experience shows that a quality regime based on student evaluations does nothing to raise academic standards but produces rampant grade inflation as institutions and staff compete to secure positive feedback.

'Of course students should receive information about their course so they can make an informed choice before applying to university. However, an obsession with creating league tables and stripping everything down to statistics is not the way to recognise the merits or suitability of different degree courses. As we approach a review looking at how higher education is funded, it has never been clearer that academic representatives need to be on the board that is tasked with that review.'
UCU said the government needed to look carefully at evidence from Professor Paul Ramsden. Professor Ramsden was tasked with drawing together plans for the government's higher education framework and warned against accepting students as consumers in his report. Professor Ramsden was asked by then Secretary of State, John Denham, to consider issues relevant to teaching and the student experience. He wrote: 'To sustain a high quality student experience, we must not fall into the trap of accepting as accurate a reading of students principally as consumers, demanding value for money, expecting "satisfaction", passively receiving skills and knowledge, grumpily complaining about service standards, and favouring above all else the easy acquisition of qualifications.'
Speaking on the contextual data and social mobility content of the framework, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, added: 'UCU firmly believes that we need to look at a whole range of information when considering students for university. University staff want to teach the brightest and best students, whatever their background and recognise the need to look beyond grades or how well someone has been prepared for an interview.

'Frustratingly, a lot of the damage has been done before students reach university and we welcome plans for a more joined-up approach in today's document. We strongly believe in the power of education to change lives and welcome Lord Mandelson's focus, once again, on education as a driver for social mobility. Students from the poorer backgrounds do often need more support in terms of mentoring as well as financial support and it is absolutely vital that students are not priced out of university by any new measures from this framework review or the forthcoming fees review.'

Last updated: 4 April 2019