On the face of things, it looks bad that a number of students leaving British universities this year are marginally less happy with their experiences on campus than last year's leavers. But it may be a good thing, because the substantial minority who were not satisfied constitutes a potent force for change.
This year's departing students were the first to have to pay top-up fees for their entire course, and that has changed the culture within British universities. Students who once shrugged at the deficiencies of their lecturers and tutors now march into their dean's office to complain. They require lecturers to post full notes of their courses on the university intranet network. They demand that drafts of essays are marked with suggested improvements so they can achieve the marks to which they aspire. The vice-chancellors' organisation has responded to the satisfaction survey by promising action in response to what students are telling it.
Improvement is certainly needed. In a critical report on higher education published recently by a Commons select committee, MPs found universities were failing to safeguard degree standards. Inconsistency is rife; external examiners are not maintaining consistent quality.
There is a tension here, and there is also a downside to market incentives in education. If universities see themselves as businesses, and students respond as customers, there is a clear risk that grade inflation will worsen rather than improve. So, in addition to students demanding better value for money, our universities need consistent standards with a more rigorous watchdog, regular re-accreditation checks and tighter rules for external examiners.
Care must be taken that the pendulum does not swing too far. We do not need an Ofsted for universities, but nor should we depart from reality by pretending that a first-class Oxbridge degree is worth the same as one from a university which asks for only 3 C-grade A-levels for entry to a similarly-named degree course. It is not satisfactory for a university to decide unilaterally how many Firsts it will award based solely on rules it sets for itself. Satisfying students demands means raising standards, not dishing out Mickey Mouse Firsts.