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The fact that Lord Browne’s review was going to recommend a rise in tuition fees has been one of the worst kept secrets in politics. The ill-fated graduate tax was a nice idea, but it was doomed from the start. The BBC ran it as a student tax, completely missing the point and losing the public. The Government was quite simply never going to buy into it.
And so we arrived at the point last tuesday when, instead of a tax-funded system which would have brought higher education back into the public realm, we face a free market. Without waving the red flag too much, if things continue as they are now it cannot be a good thing.
The first rule of a market economy is competition: if you provide a better service than your competitor at a better price then you are almost guaranteed to succeed. If you provide a lesser service for a higher cost then you are in trouble. Across the country, if Browne’s recommendations are taken up, we will see universities like Oxbridge charging high prices but for a degree which is worth its weight in gold. Universities like Cumbria will either fail outright, or start to fill the Primark/RyanAir role: affordable but not where you would choose to shop if you had the choice.
Where then does this leave universities like Lancaster? Slightly above the high street rate, but no Armani by any means. our university is going to have to think long and hard about where it wants to position itself on the fees scale, and what service it is going to provide for however much money students will be coughing up every year. We may be a top-ten university, but that recognition hasn’t translated to the mainstream yet. And a top-ten spot is very reliant upon student satisfaction, something which will be harder to come by if students feel they are paying more and getting less. In terms of teaching this may be relatively out of the University’s hands: cuts to the higher education budget by the government will affect Lancaster. But there are other simple things which, if student are to become just well read customers, they should be able to expect.
A consistent level of service is one. If two students are paying the same amount, but one has ten more teaching hours a week than the other, than the student getting less for the money is allowed to feel aggrieved. Customer support is another: for the amounts proposed students will expect more than just lectures and seminars. they will expect extra academic and patrol support, and at times that suit them, not the service provider. A higher level of customer respect will also be necessary. If a Virgin trains customer misses their train, having paid for their ticket, that is their choice. If a Lancaster University customer misses their seminar, having paid their fee for it, that is also their choice, and they won’t take kindly to their service provider disciplining them for it.
Customers are very different to students and universities need to learn that, fast.