Students as Consumers: Student Representatives and Communicating Changes

Sophie Bowen, Secretary and Director of Academic Administration & Quality at St George’s, University of London, considers how student representatives can support implementation of the Consumer Markets Authority’s guidance and asks how universities should communicate institutional changes to students before and during their time at university.

Much of the focus of sector discussion and institutional action plans arising from the Consumer and Markets Authority’s guidance on consumer protection law, published in March 2015, has been on the various processes and policies in place for managing recruitment and admissions. Is marketing information accurate, easily accessible and relevant or ‘material’ for potential applicants? Are terms and conditions, in particular any right to vary aspects of academic or services provision for students, unambiguous and strike a fair balance between the institution’s rights and obligations and those of students? These are all vital areas to get right in legal and practical terms, but also lead to interesting implications for managing relationships with students.

The new undergraduate fee regime has seen the increasing recognition of both pedagogic models of students as partners or co-producers of their education, and an understanding of students as clients or consumers of non-academic services. QAA, HEA and many others have undertaken work in this area, and the sector is shifting from student ‘satisfaction’ to ‘experience’ to ‘engagement’. Whilst this debate continues, in many institutions there has been an increase in student involvement at institutional level – for example through greater student union officer involvement in committees, appointment panels and quality assurance processes – and at department or subject level, through jointly managed change programmes or greater involvement of student representatives in course decisions. The students’ union role as enshrined in the Education Act 1994, as representing the ‘generality’ of students ‘in academic, disciplinary or other matters relating to the government of the establishment’, is now more recognised and welcomed than ever before. Student charters, representation frameworks and lengthy partnership documents are now the norm.

When we look at this through the more prescriptive lens of the consumer legislation, we hit a potential problem. Each institution is contracting with each individual student. Significant or material changes to terms and conditions should be highlighted to each student, and they should then have the opportunity to accept the changes or cancel the contract ‘without penalty’. Of course this is impracticable for students; it is extremely difficult to ‘switch’ university. This is also impractical for universities – whilst the CMA guidance acknowledges that some changes will be inevitable, such as updates to curriculum content required by professional bodies, the practicalities of anticipating the potential changes over a 3, 4 or even 6 year course in a dynamic and evolving sector are less well explored.

For the institution, this creates a conundrum. Whilst we are strengthening representation systems they are just that – representation, not direct engagement with individual students. And many students’ unions are struggling to generate sufficient interest in this vital area as it is so simple now for students to provide feedback, comment, and organise outside of the formal representation systems. Technology permits multichannel communication and bypassing of traditional forms of structured input. For institutions this presents an additional challenge. Many students claim information overload, or the institution invading ‘their space’ (for example Facebook groups), or just don’t prioritise the institution amongst their many other interactions.

So how do we resolve these potentially conflicting positions? Getting it right from the start is always a sensible approach. The university application and enrolment stages should make it clear how future changes to the course, services and other aspects of the institutional experience will be discussed and communicated, at institutional and at academic and service department levels. This might require amending the framework for managing changes by streamlining or standardising course or service change processes and regular checking to ensure implementation at every level in the institution. Recording a change in course committee minutes and informing students once the matter is decided is no longer enough.

Personalising existing communication routes can be helpful, particularly those negotiated with previous cohorts and where students may not be physically on campus. Students are more likely to read personalised, relevant content; this is the norm with much of their other online interactions.

Establishing a representation system that works is also vital. Training representatives jointly with the students’ union and facilitating their efforts to engage with their constituencies through provision of distribution lists or discussion boards, meeting venues or refreshment budgets can be helpful. Above all ensuring a regular flow of information, constructive dialogue with representatives and then responding appropriately to queries or issues will all make a difference. This dialogue will also help the institution determine what is ‘material’ to students – what change is significant to them – so that for these changes a more bespoke or intensive communication and engagement plan can be put in place.

One size will not fit all. Complying with legal duties, managing resource and structural changes, supporting curriculum and service innovation and ensuring many thousands of students have the opportunity to have an effective voice in institutional decision-making is not simple. But each institution will already have systems and frameworks in place that, with some adjustment and co-ordination, can have real benefit for students and for the institution.