Peter Ainsworth is the Managing Director of EM Applications and is the author of Universities challenged: funding higher education through a free-market ‘graduate tax’.
Oriel College’s financial losses arising from its decision to consider removing the statue of its greatest benefactor, Cecil Rhodes, and its humiliating reversal of that decision, serve as a stark warning of the risks that universities face from treating their students as customers.
When the “Rhodes Must Fall” in Oxford campaign started, the college could have treated it as nothing more than an outburst of youthful exuberance. Students, typically in their late teens and early twenties, are at university because of a recognition that they have much to learn from their elders. It is to be expected that at that age they will be less capable of restraining their emotions and have yet to learn the tolerance that grows from a better understanding of the complexities of life. Their teachers could have engaged them in an academic exercise – asking them, perhaps, to write essays in defence of Rhodes – so they would learn the valuable art of arguing from one’s opponent’s point of view.
Instead, Oriel removed a plaque commemorating Rhodes and replaced it with a mealy-mouthed statement: “In acknowledging the historical fact of Rhodes’ bequest, the college does not in any way condone or glorify his views or actions.” It also announced a six-month “listening project” to further consider whether the statue of Rhodes should be brought down.
Why would such an ancient and proud institution capitulate to the urges of a few youngsters? Chris Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, staked out the robust position that students who were minded to re-write history should “think about being educated elsewhere”. But Oriel took more note of student opinion, as illustrated by a majority vote at the Oxford Union in favour of editing Rhodes out of its past.
The only possible explanation is that the college was infected by the same ideas that informed the Government’s current Green Paper proposing a “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF). This policy document claims that as “higher education is now funded by students” the government’s objective is to “reshape the higher education landscape to have students at its heart”. The thinking is that as students pay for their time at University, they must be the customers of the University and, if they are customers, they have a right to be served as such.
But the lesson that Oriel has learned is that its customers are not the students at all. In fact, they are its alumni – the past graduates of the college. The alumni pay large amounts of money to the college in exchange for recognition of their generosity. There is no other burden on the donors. This is exactly the economic status of a customer – they pay with hard cash for something and there is no other obligation on them. Aware that Rhodes’ significant bequest had not bought him lasting gratitude lead many to ask, as Oriel’s Development Director put it, “is this how we treat our donors?” Those alumni became unhappy customers, no longer believing that the college would live up to its part of the bargain, and so decided to take their custom elsewhere.
By comparison, students do not fit the description of a customer at all. A student, as a student, pays not a bean towards his education. And far from being free simply to consume “being taught”, the student has a huge responsibility to work hard, learn and open their mind. Their role is closer to that of employee than customer. They are investors in their personal self-improvement and must apply their own efforts to develop the raw material – themselves.
The vote at the Oxford Union is a stark warning of the dangers posed by the “landscape” proposed by the TEF. Only 457 students out of over 10,000 voted in the debate, with just 245 supporting the anti-Rhodes motion. We now know that it’s the busy Conservatives that the pollsters can’t get in touch with that are the reason for the left-leaning bias of the polls. Similarly, its studious students who will have a smaller voice in the surveys and student rule that are central to TEF.
So: it’s not Oriel’s fault: the College was acting consistently with where the Government is directing it. Let’s hope that its about-turn is a lesson that is learnt at BIS.