Are university students really just consumers?
Source: Shutterstock

At a higher education conference last month, the UK universities minister envisioned a GoCompare-style website dedicated to universities.

Instead of comparing home and car insurance, this version will inform prospective students about the value of their degree, specifically how a particular qualification will affect their future earnings.

As comparison websites go, they are incredibly quick and convenient. It’s no wonder that around 10 million people use such sites each year in the UK. They have their virtues and the suggestion seeks to translate such boons to higher education, in the name of making the search for which university to apply to easier.

But Gyimah looks like he’s getting ahead of himself. There’s a big question that needs to be answered before running with this idea: should we be treating universities as products to be consumed like insurance and iPhones?

Universities minister Sam Gyimah

On the surface, having a university version of a GoCompare seems like it could help students decide more efficiently and effectively. There are too many rankings to count, much more to make sense of, while reviews can be hard to find and run the risk of being concealed advertising.

Comparisons made on objective indicators like future earnings seems to be the answer, ie. an impartial source of information many students, local and international, have been wanting for so long.

In a scathing piece published in The Guardian, Professor of Higher Education studies at the Institute of Education Peter Scott described the suggestion, which was part of a trio of assertions made by Gyimah, all of which are “morally objectionable, intellectually bankrupt and technically incompetent”.

Scott alleges Gyimah makes “no recognition” that higher education is a “complex co-creation by students and their teachers (and lots of other people)” and of which its value can mature or decay, unlike a can of baked beans bought from Tesco.

Scott added: “No recognition that average earnings based on past performance are no guarantee of similar earnings in the future – the standard health warning on all financial products but apparently unnecessary here.”

“No recognition the true value of a university education cannot be reduced to website-ticked value-for-money. No place for wonder, enlightenment, culture – or much room for education.”

Scott’s comments are just the latest in a long-running debate over the commercialisation of higher education in the UK and the rest of the world today.

Writing in a column for The Independent in 2013, Michael Segalov called on students to “resist the expectation of becoming nothing more than customers”. Among students, there is growing resentment for being treated like consumers, especially in light of “farcically high fees, low contact time and extortionate rents”.

“The imposition of the consumer model onto students in UK education must be rejected at all costs if we are to safeguard the critical and engaging character of the University,” Segalove wrote.

Students protest against fees, cuts and debt in central London in 2016. Source: Shutterstock

It’s a movement that reverberates worldwide. Students in other countries such as Finland and Indonesia have been protesting on the same issue over the last few decades.

In May this year, students from various universities in Medan, North Sumatra, staged a rally during the country’s National Education Day to call on their government to stop the commercialisation of the country’s education system.

According to University World News, rally coordinator Ikhsan Simatupan said: “Poor people can access some schools, but there are also education institutions that can be accessed only by rich and middle-class people. This form of educational discrimination must be abolished.”

This may be a topic with solutions beyond reach of the typical student. But all these give crucial perspective to students asking “What is the meaning behind these three years of my life at university?”. Are students partners of their respective universities in humanity’s pursuit for knowledge? Or are they just consumers buying into the perception of a higher-level education?

As for the suggestion of a GoCompare site dedicated to universities, students should seek universities that provide a holistic experience that can be tailored to every student’s needs.

While it’s easier to rely on rankings and comparison sites, especially for international students living thousands of miles away, this could prove to be detrimental for your future self and career. Scott and the other writers are right – some things are just immeasurable and the value of higher education is one of them.

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