Page last updated at 19:13 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Fees fuel campus consumer culture

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Cash on campus
Hire education: Fees have changed campus culture
What do student newspapers complain about these days?

How about this headline in Swansea University's student paper following the recent bad weather.

"Students lose 20 a lecture after snow sends university into lockdown."

It pointed out that fee-paying students are not getting full value for money if lectures are cancelled.

Students were seeing their "money disappear quicker than the snow melted".

It illustrates something about changed attitudes on campus when students are complaining that they are not getting enough lectures.

Paying fees means that students are customers as well as learners.

The student union president at Swansea University, James Houston, says that going to university is "still different from a shopping experience" - but that paying fees is pushing it in that direction.

'Customer service'

"There is a strong argument that if you charge more, then people will want to know where their money is going," he says.

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Universities are more than a business, he says. But he fears that fees are driving a campus consumer ethic.

The students' union already has complaints from students about not getting "value for money".

This shift in attitude is also reflected in an increase in complaints by students to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education - which it attributes to fees.

"We believe that one reason for the increase is the rise in tuition fees. There is also more consumerist thinking amongst students. Students have become more assertive about their rights, and the services they are entitled to," said chief executive, Rob Behrens.

While the debate about fees was once about whether it would be a social barrier to poorer students, in practice there have been other less expected changes.

The combination of fees and debts from student loans means that university courses are judged by their price tags as well as academic worth.

Frank Furedi, social commentator and academic at the University of Kent, says that the campus culture is "unrecognisable" from a generation ago.

Students now ring lecturers at home at the weekend, he says, seeing this as being part of the service they are buying with their fees.

"They feel they can make all kinds of demands," says Prof Furedi.

"Fees give a clear and tangible form to the idea of students as consumers.

"The relationship with the student is no longer academic, it's a service provider and customer. The academic relationship is an endangered species."

There are still students who want to be inspired and intellectually challenged, he says.

Extended school

But the landscape is one in which many students expect to have everything done for them.

"School has extended into higher education. Students behave like schoolchildren."

If tuition fees are hiked further, he says it will intensify the sense of consumerism among students.

There are other signs of how fees have changed life on campus.

Students are more careers-focused than ever before, the accumulation of large debts putting pressure on them to get a degree that will help them in the jobs market.

Beginning a university degree course is a serious financial undertaking and that now shapes the experience of student life.

There are other practical changes. More students than ever are living at home while at university - with surveys suggesting that perhaps a fifth of students continue to live with their parents.

This in turn means that more students, particularly from less well-off families, are choosing from universities close to where they live.

Helicopter parents

The role of parents, who pay towards student costs, has also been seen as becoming more prominent.

This has been caricatured as "helicopter parents" who hover over every decision taken by their student offspring, including contacting lecturers.

Parents can now act as agents for their children in university applications - and have even been allowed to sit in on admissions interviews.

Cary Cooper, pro-vice chancellor at Lancaster University, also points to the structural consequences of a further increase in fees.

At present, he says, the current level of student debt means that many more students have to take part-time jobs to pay their way.

Another hike in fees will mean even more students will need to work - including those who will only be able to study part-time.

This will mean universities will have to adapt, such as providing courses which can be passed in individual units, accumulating credits over a number of years.

Professor Cooper says this could mean a fundamental change for higher education, moving away from the traditional model of 18 to 21-year-olds taking a three-year degree course.

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