Students are not consumers

Treating them as customers does nothing to prepare them for the world of work.

The government presents its white paper on the future of higher education as a radical new policy direction. Yet the paper is designed to serve the same two objectives that have governed higher education policy for the past quarter of a century. One is to strengthen the role of students as consumers whose preferences determine the course of higher education provision. The other is to increase the focus of higher education on preparing students for graduate employment.

The contradiction should be obvious. Employers do not treat employees as consumers. Spending three years as a consumer will not prepare you for the world of employment. It is not the content of our degree programmes that we should be changing in order to improve our students' employability. It is the role we expect our students to play within our institutions of higher education.

Consumerism itself obscures this point. For this objective requires us to measure graduate employability and make it known to the next wave of consumers. All that can be measured and made known fast enough are earnings in the first few years after graduation. So universities are encouraged to teach the current practices of the white collar workplace. But our undergraduate students can expect to work for up to fifty years before they retire. Will they be well prepared for this by learning the quotidian routines of today's employees?

Given how dramatically the graduate workplace has changed over the past two decades, this seems very unlikely. What will serve students far better is spending these three years intensively developing their skills of researching, understanding, criticising, rethinking, writing and discussing, individually and together with colleagues. These are the hardy perennials that will see them through their working lives. These are the skills that academic study develops. The more time spent honing these skills, the better. This time should not be given over to learning office techniques attractive to first employers.

What is more, this consumerism is anyway apt to hamper graduates' ability to flourish in those first jobs. For after spending three years in an environment geared to ensuring your satisfaction, the world of work can only come as a major culture shock. All of a sudden, your work schedule cannot be negotiated around your other employments and your social life, your deadlines really are deadlines, you cannot crib your work from handouts made available to you in a variety of media, and, most importantly, your managers are not beholden to your subjective assessment of how they ought to be doing their job. It is hardly surprising if some employers consider their graduate recruits to be in need of retraining.

If the government is serious about graduate employability, then it should abandon the consumerist objective. Students should be seen as apprentices in their disciplines, through which they develop those hardy perennial skills. Academics should be recognised as the experts training these apprentices in these skills. It should be accepted that this involves regularly stretching the students beyond their comfort zones, an experience they might not all enjoy. Above all, it requires accepting that student enjoyment is not a reliable indicator of quality of education.

Under the name Campaign For The Public University (, a group of academics and students are now soliciting contributions for an alternative white paper, to be published in September when the government's consultation period ends. That alternative should present a genuinely new policy direction. It looks set to recommend abandoning the consumerist objective in order to put student interests at the heart of higher education. Following this recommendation should also enhance graduate employability.

Jonathan Webber is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.