Education is a significant financial investment and, today, there’s a shift taking place within education that is marking the start of a new era. Specifically, fees have never been higher and students have never been more demanding or empowered in terms of their status as ‘consumers’… disability issues, and in particular mental health issues are being recognised, and traditional universities are now competing with much cheaper and convenient alternatives online.
In this article we’re going to look at some of the shifts taking place in education as they relate to being a more frugal, or at least efficient, consumer of education, though first we’ll address the new paradigm of students today, as they become much more empowered in their position as consumer.
THE STUDENT CONSUMER
When we think of education, we often think of university, now at its fundamental core the business model fuelling most universities and colleges is to provide education and facilities in return for a fee; whether this fee is paid by the government or private individuals.
Interestingly, from a legal perspective, a student is today viewed as a consumer of education meaning they are in a consumer contract with the university as a supplier of education, much the same as a holidaymaker is in a consumer contract with a holiday company to supply a holiday.
With consumers being much more empowered today with regard to their legal rights, and much more confident in asserting them, there’s starting to be somewhat of a shift in terms of the balance of power within the student-university relationship.
Historically, this dynamic has not been one of students seeing themselves as empowered consumers with legal rights, in a contract with a service provider – but that of teacher student in all respects, and many have had their legal rights trampled on, or at least been left feeling unfairly treated and unheard by these omnipotent institutions.
Indeed, due to the fiercely competitive process involved with applying for and being offered a place on a course by a prestigious university, the relief of being accepted and the general dynamic created by this teacher-student process means that students often forget they are consumers with legal rights.
Universities and colleges are powerful and somewhat insular entities; in that they have their own codes of conduct, academic rules and regulations, membership rules and so on. Now, because universities are often self-regulated, meaning internal matters such as academic appeals are handled exclusively within the jurisdiction of the academic institution – it’s easy to forget that the universities are still governed by the laws of the land.
Now, the shift that’s taking place is that students are starting to become aware of the fact their university is in a contract to supply education, meaning it must adhere to the principle of contract law such as the education must be to a reasonable standard, as represented / advertised, and to be fit for purpose. Further to this, universities are subject to onerous equality legislation that is very easy to fall foul of and exceedingly easy for students to complain about – meaning the once ‘all powerful’ and untouchable institution is now somewhat vulnerable to the whim of these empowered student consumers.
In recent times universities around the world, but particularly in the UK and the US have hit the headlines as they are exposed for “pushing their weight around” when it comes to dealing with issues such as mental health discrimination.
Students today, are becoming more and more empowered to take on their academic institution in a legal context and this is a huge shift taking place within education. There are more and more lawsuits being made against universities for causes of action ranging from inequality (i.e. discriminating against someone with a disability) to breach of contract (i.e. a university not fulfilling their end of the bargain such as to provide education to a reasonable standard or with reasonable care) and misrepresentation (i.e. misrepresenting a particular course to be better than it actually is).
Therefore, there seems to be somewhat of a powershift in education, where more and more students are becoming independent litigants; and whilst many cases clearly arise from a bruised ego or personal vendetta against an academic institution, from an overconfident teenager, many cases are now being treated very seriously by the courts and awarded significant damages to make an example of them.
Today, the plethora of online learning platforms is creating a much more competitive market for education than any other time in history. Indeed, just a decade ago, universities felt pretty secure in their ability to dominate the market when it came to education – yet, with fees being raised to phenomenal levels many students simply can’t afford higher education today… and even more are questioning the value of a traditional three year degree in terms of the return on investment the course will deliver.
There are, of course, many benefits to attending university as a regular student – but most of these fall into two categories; social and facilities. The thing with going to university, for most people, is that it’s a social experience few would want to pass up on – the parties, the new friends, the independence yet safety of university living and the ability to put off the need to get a “proper job” for a few years.
Then, there’s the facilities – if you’re studying a technical course in something such as photography, for instance, then a university can provide you with expensive resources you might not be able to afford on your own and offer access to state of the art facilities such as science labs stacked with extremely expensive equipment.
However, in terms of the actual education itself, online learning seems to be a much more attractive way to go about getting a formal education. In the most part because it is more convenient and much more affordable. Indeed, universities are recognising the attractiveness of remote learning and several mainstream universities are now offering their courses online.
For instance, you could study a supply chain management program online at masters level, and save yourself a small fortune. Indeed, the cost saving benefits of studying online are vast, as not only are there lower fees because the academic institution has much lower costs than a traditional campus based facility, but also, you are potentially saving money on accommodation, transport, and also the ability to work full-time and study around their commitments.
Online learning is much better for parents too, as this way you can fit your studying around your life rather than having to fit your life around your study. Indeed, so many parents are having to juggle multiple aspects including work, family, study and their social life that they simply could not access a traditional course.
Indeed, the best many parents could hope for just twenty years ago was to buy some books on a budget or go down to the library and research their interests in this dry and uninspiring way. When we contrast this to the engaging online courses that use several innovative learning methodologies and modalities including film and animation education has never been more engaging, and convenient.
Today, the opportunity to study more flexibly and even remotely, where there’s no need to commute to a lecture theatre – for as long as you have a decent internet connection you can practically study (or work) anywhere in the world… whether that’s in the comfort of your own home, on a luxury beach paradise, or a budget backpacker shack in a pristine mountain paradise.
In fact the freedom of the remote working lifestyle and the remote studying lifestyle means, quite literally, the world is your oyster. Many people want to learn new skills are are looking at ways of doing this that can fit into an already busy lifestyle, which is why online learning is starting to supercede traditional campus based university courses.
The other shift that’s taking place is the demand to tailor things, such as education, to our unique requirements and specific interests. Whilst most university courses offer an element of flexibility within the module choice, today, people want to learn particular skills or fill specific knowledge gaps that are directly applicable to their life and work. For instance, rather than undertake a three year course in web development they may prefer to undertake a six hour course in wordpress development; as people today are much more application focused meaning education has to have a specific purpose, deliverable and outcome.
In summary, there is a huge shift within education as students today are becoming much more empowered in their role as a consumer with legal rights and high expectations of receiving value for money, in consideration of the expensive fees now charged by universities. Furthermore, students crave a lot more freedom, flexibility, and relevancy in terms of their education – often opting for much cheaper vocational courses focused on a specific aspect of a broader topic that they can study anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
Will this mark the end of higher education as we know it? Probably not, as there will always be a social need for those craving the prestige of a first class degree from a well known institution such as Oxford University… but for the masses, there does seem to be a huge shift taking place within education and within a few years, perhaps most courses will be online.