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 (publicuniversity.org.uk), 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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.