The notion of the student as a consumer is one that is gaining popularity. But NUS vice president (higher education) Megan Dunn says universities need to start seeing students as full members of their community who should play an active role in it, rather than customers, easily impressed by shiny new buildings.
Being efficient is important. It means using what you have in the best way possible; it means making the most out of your opportunities; it means you are able to share your resources more widely.
It’s important for everyone to learn how to be efficient – what to prioritise, what needs to be done, in what order and by who, and it is a particularly important learning process for students. They must learn to be efficient with their money, but also with their time, which often leads to incredible and interesting innovations (I know at least one student who boils their extra value pasta in the kettle!)
It is a process of understanding what your resources are, and that they are not infinite – a hard lesson for any student at the end of their first term – and then working out what you value most and putting your resources there.
Students develop this ability quickly, knowing exactly what they can trim down on and what the necessary level of resource is needed to achieve their goal. Ask any student how long they need to get from their bed to the lecture hall, and I guarantee they’ll have it down to the exact second. It’s about weighing up what you value most and making decisions based on that (extra time in bed versus time to blow dry your hair, for example).
Whilst I may be using some fun examples, it’s important to remind people that students do know about living in the real world, and they have to live within their own personal constraints every day.
There is a dangerous narrative that has developed that students are this insatiable mass, that they want the moon on a stick, and they want it yesterday. Actually, what you’ll find when you speak to students, is that they understand perfectly well that money doesn’t grow on trees, and decisions have to be made about how and where resources get used.
The bit that gets them frustrated is when the money that is being spent shows them again and again that they are not valued. It’s not value for money that is important, it’s being valued as a person.
When students see vice chancellors being driven around in high class cars or working in state-of-the-art offices, when they only have one copy of a core textbook in the library that makes them angry. When they can’t book a room for their society or course mates to meet, but the new external conferencing venue has just been opened, they feel sidelined. And when they can’t get an appointment with the university counselling service for six months, but there has just been a university-wide rebrand, the message they hear loud and clear is that they are not important.
Being efficient means prioritising, and too often, universities do not prioritise students. We often talk the talk in prospectuses and open days, but actually delivering on this is a different matter. To make this a reality, universities need to start seeing their students as full members of their community who should play an active role in it, instead of customers to be dazzled with shiny buildings and colourful marketing. Being a partner in a community means having conversations, asking people what they care about, and then working out what the priorities are together.
But to do this, universities need to have students in the room where decisions are made. The notion that students should be asked to leave a meeting whilst finances are discussed, because it’s not about the learning experience does not hold any water with me, and certainly doesn’t with students.
Barring students from these decisions only serves to reinforce the message that they are not valued, and not important. If universities really want to look at how to be more efficient, I guarantee having students in the room can only help.
Megan Dunn is NUS vice president for higher education