Treating undergraduates as consumers could hit grades, new research shows
Written bySarah Cox
A new study by psychologists from Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Winchester shows that students who see themselves as consumers, rather than active partners in their education, are more likely to underperform academically.
Since the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 there has been a growing rhetoric amongst politicians and policy makers of university students as ‘customers’. This was reinforced in the Government’s recent Higher Education Green Paper.
This consumer discourse is increasingly being adopted by students, but until now we did not know what effect this was having on their studies. Researchers at the University of Winchester and Goldsmiths have revealed for the first time what effect this consumer discourse is having on students’ academic success.
Essentially, the study has found that the more students identify as customers, the poorer they perform academically.
Dr Sian Jones, Teaching Fellow in Goldsmiths' Department of Psychology, working with Dr Louise Bunce and Dr Amy Baird from Winchester found that treating students students as consumers, or reinforcing this orientation could well have a detrimental effect on their degree success.
The study, published in Studies in Higher Education, surveyed over 600 students studying in England to find out what effect thinking and acting like a consumer of their education had on their studying behaviours and performance. Students who identified as a consumer agreed with statements such as ‘I think of myself primarily as a paying customer of the university’ and ‘If I cannot earn a lot of money after I graduate, I will have wasted my time at university’.
Conversely, they disagreed with statements such as ‘I want to expand my intellectual ability’ and ‘I would choose to study even if I didn’t achieve a degree from it’.
The study also shows that these relationships were stronger among students who were personally responsible for their tuition fees through student loans, compared to students whose fees were funded by an employer, bursary or relative.
Students studying a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths) were also more likely to see themselves as consumers than students studying other subjects, perhaps because of the perception that a degree in a STEM subject can lead directly to a specific, and often well paid, career, the research suggests.
Dr Louise Bunce, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Winchester, led the study. She explains: “While it is positive that universities are expected to offer more value to students as a result of higher tuition fees, students also need to be aware that learning cannot be bought. Government, too, should be cautious when talking about the ‘value’ of higher education purely in terms of a financial transaction as it may encourage students to feel like they are simply buying their degree. As a result they may start to develop a ‘you teach me’ attitude rather than one that fosters effortful engagement with their chosen subject.
“Our research clearly shows that a consumer attitude will not help students to fulfil their learning potential and may even result in lower grades. I would encourage students to resist the ‘I’m paying for this’ attitude, and allow their curiosity and enjoyment for their subject to thrive."