Consumers and Producers in Higher Education

There was a lot of talk at the AUA conference this week about consumerism in Higher Education. While Anthony McClaran from QAA shared a ‘common sense’ perspective about the existence of the consumer relationship between students and universities, it seemed as if the rest of the panel, the backchannel and the delegates who took the mic generally felt that this was a very bad thing that we should fight against – or even that we should deny its existence.

Here is my perspective; we are all consumers. We all want stuff and take stuff from people. It stands to reason that, as fellow human beings we are on the other end of it too; people want things from us, and we often provide them. It’s a two-way street.

Now, constantly providing for people is not easy. Even if we collect a salary from it, it can feel relentless and unrewarding, and on occasion we may decide that the level of provision people expect from us is unsustainable. We may need to make changes so that our provision is more efficient, or our ‘consumers’ are empowered to find what they need without our help. Fair enough, you may say – but what about when we’re the consumer? How do we feel when we are seeking something from someone else and we are turned away? If we’re working within a structure where we are empowered to find the answers for ourselves, or in discussion with others – and those self-sought answers are seen to have value, then fine; we may learn to be content with our independence. But building these structures takes time.

Take the example of this conference. Imagine a few hundred people in a room, nodding sagely at the suggestion that students should be treated as co-creators of knowledge, and consumerism in HE should be crushed. Now let me share three things I heard or saw at that same conference, earlier that same day:

1. (surprised, mildly disapproving tone) ‘well, that’s a novel approach to a keynote, asking us to come up with the answers!’ [AUA delegate sitting next to me during Sarah Porter's keynote]

2. ‘Well, I don’t know, that’s what I came to this session to find out!’ [AUA delegate in our workshop, during a group activity]

3. Please assess this session on:

a) Quality of Presentation and Delivery
b) Content
c) Overall

[standard AUA session evaluation proforma - N.B. these were the only three elements listed]

I hope these observations serve to illustrate what I’m trying to say; it all comes down to the Golden Rule; Treat others as you would expect to be treated. Don’t expect people to change their ‘consumerist’ attitudes and behaviours without the necessary infrastructure and a number of positive experiences to support a change in attitude. In the first two examples, previous conceptions of learning were being challenged – hopefully successfully, but given the design of the session evaluation forms we may never find out ;)

My old MA tutor Jack Whitehead taught me that thoughts and words are pretty useless without actions, so my action arising from these thoughts is going to be to get in touch with the AUA people to suggest they change their session evaluation forms for next year to focus on what the delegate did during the session (and what they may do as a result of it), rather than what the ‘presenter’ did. Any suggestions for how they might word that…? Answers below…?!

One Comment on “Consumers and Producers in Higher Education”

  1. I passed on my feedback to the AUA conference team and they replied thus:

    “We’re always interested in the feedback people give us, we believe in delivering the best service we can and feedback is how we are able to improve what we offer. This is the first time we’ve been given feedback on our feedback processes so it’s definitely welcomed!

    I was aware of your blog and read it as soon as I returned after the conference. Your feedback is really useful and something that wasn’t considered when the working session surveys were put together some time ago. We tried to capture this on the instant feedback surveys instead, which were on our mobile website (see then ‘provide feedback’).

    Having read the feedback from the working sessions myself last week, I noticed that quite a lot of people had mentioned in the free text when they found something specifically useful. I think in light of this and your feedback, for next year’s conference we’ll include a question about what was useful about the session in the main feedback forms.

    If you have any suggestions about the question format or how it should be worded I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.”

    So that’s good then…

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