Several universities are well advanced with their own draft charters, or 'entitlement statements'. A national higher education charter is expected to be published by the Department for Education soon. At its conference earlier this month the NUS published a model 'learner agreement' defining the standards that students can expect from individual institutions.
Yet there are substantial difficulties to be overcome before a 'customer-led' approach can be made to work in higher education. To be practical, learner agreements need to contain more detailed provisions than the broad goals that guide the NUS charter, and indeed those that can be expected to form the basis of the Government's paper.
Universities and colleges need to define their customers. Much recent discussion has assumed that the client is always the student. The reality is not that simple, especially as institutions increase their dependence on alternative sources of income. A college may have to take into account the wishes of corporate clients for consultancy, conference organisers and research councils. For undergraduate courses, the clients might be the students themselves, but equally they could be their parents, their local education authorities (which pay the fees), or students' industrial sponsors.
There is a similar problem in identifying the 'goods' being offered. University education is not a homogeneous item, and it is not traded as a retail product. Often no cash changes hands, which raises the question of how to compensate for 'goods' that are not satisfactory. Administrators faced with drawing up learner agreements, or charters, have discovered that each customer is buying a personal package from the institution, and so has different standards.
Sheffield Hallam University has already made substantial progress with a document detailing the levels of service students can expect. Geoff Layer, who helped to formulate it, says: 'We had to think through what we were trying to do. Did we want a student 'entitlement', or did we want to present our document as a partnership?'
Mr Layer's team was quick to recognise that the 'product' offered at the university was multifaceted. 'We split areas of interest into three: general issues, the curriculum and central services. The general section talked about equality of opportunity, about religious beliefs, even graffiti. For the curriculum, we suggested that everybody should be entitled to know when their work will be back. And students want to know their timetables, when their exams will be held, and how to get money back from services that are not satisfactory. We then asked each central service to supply its own statement of what it would provide.'
By splitting up the products provided by the university, Sheffield Hallam aims to make it easier to state in advance the quality it wants to achieve. This may be simple in areas such as accommodation or catering, but it becomes more complicated for teaching, which is the main focus of the NUS learner agreement.
Lesley MacDonald, staff development and training adviser at Durham University, says: 'It is not like being a customer in a hotel or a shop, where the contract is clear. When you look at the nature of the teaching and learning process, learners are not just passive recipients. They are taking part in a process of great complexity.'
However, Ms MacDonald says that customer agreements can work in some areas of higher education. 'It should be possible to fix levels of provision in advance for academic services such as libraries and computing services and for the quality of residential accommodation. We do that now with statements on whether students can or cannot expect to live in college.' But even then there can be problems. 'There are differences between operating a service mainly for student use and for research use,' she says. 'Library provision is a good example.'
A further difficulty is that the 'customers' themselves are unsure what standards to expect from a university. 'Eighteen-year-old undergraduates are not able to make judgements about the quality of service they receive; they're not sufficiently informed,' Ms MacDonald says.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a customer-based system of higher education is finding a method of redress for unsatisfactory services. Placing a value on much of what a university provides is difficult, however, since not all services are paid for directly. In its document The Right to Learner Agreements, the NUS says: 'The concern is that students should not suffer, and so it is difficult to see how financial redress would be appropriate or useful . . . Speed of correction, rather than compensation, is the important factor.'
Ms MacDonald puts it more simply: 'As a rule, prevention is better than cure.'
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