Brief reflections on a theme - students as consumers

I have recently attended a number of HE conferences during which references to students as consumers generated responses ranging from mild dyspepsia to convulsed rage.  It interesting that a concept which in legal terms is indicative of an almost benighted, protected status, but amongst institutions and, I understand, the NUS, is regarded with such animus. 

In the HE context “consumer” has become synonymous with the crude marketisation or commoditisation of higher education which, far from empowering students, is regarded as rendering them mere passive recipients in the education process.   This blog invites the sceptics to view the concept as a positive one and to see in it not only the benefits for the student, but also for the institution itself.

Construing students as consumers in the legal sense has meant, at least since 1999, that in its contractual relationship with students, institutions must embrace the virtues of reasonableness, good faith and fair and open dealing.  It recognises the relatively weak bargaining position of consumers and protects them from any exploitation of that position or from taking advantage of any lack of experience on the students’ parts.  It further protects students from an erosion of the rights which they would have under the general law, where that erosion is to the students’ detriment, for example by claiming in a prospectus or elsewhere that the institution has no responsibility for any sub-standard provision of courses or for a failure to provide a course at all.

The principle of good faith however means that institutions must be clear and transparent about their obligations to students, so that students are not misled and that their choice of institution is an informed one. Institutions must also be clear about their expectations of students and the obligations that those students are required to fulfil, so it is not all one-sided.    When students fail to meet some of those obligations, sanctions imposed must be proportionate. Institutions retain enormous discretion to decide the content of courses, to pursue academic goals, to charge fees and to determine broadly the nature of their relationship with their students. The principle of good faith enshrined in the consumer model promotes mutual trust and confidence and reinforces a sense of belonging to the institution’s community.  

To paraphrase Gandhi, the greatness of an institution can be judged by the way its students are treated.  Isn’t adopting the consumer model a useful first step?

Geraldine Swanton
Senior Associate Solicitor
Education Team
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
DD: 0800 763 1455
F: 0800 763 1001
International DD: +44 870 763 1385

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