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Navigating the Shift: Transforming Higher Education in the Age of the Student Consumer

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Be prepared for what we will say next because we suspect many of you will find it offensive. The dreaded ‘C’ word. No, not that one. The other one. CONSUMER. And while we are at it, here’s another one: CUSTOMER. There we have said it. Whether we like it or not, in 2023, students viewed higher education as a product or service that they paid for and had increasingly demanding expectations about whether they were satisfied with their ‘purchase.’ They may not know the value of higher education, but they certainly see the price! And here’s the best bit. We created the student consumer. That’s right. In our attempt to persuade students that ‘our’ university was the one they should attend, our marketing budgets increased exponentially, and we wooed students with glossy brochures of handsome undergraduates sitting on a verdant lawn, under the shade of a tree or striding forcefully into a sandstone courtyard. We promised them a transformational experience, a return on investment, and a glittering career with international travel (probably in business class). And if students don’t believe our hype, they can readily access information from third-party websites to contrast and compare what is on offer:

It was reported recently that nine out of ten deputy vice-chancellors in the UK believe that some universities will be forced to close in the next decade, given the increasing competition in higher education. Almost a third of middle-income parents in the UK believe that university is no longer worth the investment. In the business world, they would call this confluence a ‘perfect storm.’

The move towards a more customer-focused education system is driven by the increasing costs of a degree and the demands from families and students for service and accountability. In the USA, the average cost of attendance for a student living on campus at a public 4-year in-state institution is $26,027 per year or $104,108 over four years. Out-of-state students pay $27,091 per year or $108,364 over four years. Private, nonprofit university students pay $55,840 annually or $223,360 over four years. According to the Federal Reserve's Consumer Credit report, 43.5 million Americans have some form of federal or private student loan debt. That's 13 per cent of the population. Not only can you not declare bankruptcy on many forms of student loan debt, but it can also harm your credit, influencing innumerable post-university social and economic choices.

Evidence of inadequate service and accountability is growing as well. The number of student complaints about university courses in England and Wales reached a record high for the fourth year in 2022. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,850 complaints - 3% more than in 2021 - and £1,050,114 was awarded in compensation for their treatment by universities. Such complaints have been introduced previously. In 2005, the OIA required Oxford Brookes University to pay around £250,000 to several students when the university failed to gain professional accreditation for the degree course, which required the students to practice as osteopaths. Perhaps even more worrying was that initially, the university rejected the students’ complaints.

The American baseball player Yogi Berra famously said, ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’ For those institutions that have, over time, built a reputation of prestigious, research-focused universities with selective admission procedures that attract higher-quality students, top-tier faculty, and corresponding premium fees, the future will closely resemble the past. However, for most universities, their challenge is attracting students. Unable to rely on reputational indices, they must demonstrate they can meet the demands of an ever-increasingly sophisticated student consumer. And despite student numbers increasing in the UK to a record 500,000, some universities find recruiting students challenging. Analysis by The Times newspaper in the UK showed that several universities recorded increases and decreases in enrolments.

According to the Times, “Students appear to be attracted to those with a strong academic reputation or high-quality vocational courses with good links to employers.” The report notes that continual poor recruitment may force the closure of courses or departments. The importance of attracting students may partly explain why some universities are resorting to what may be described as desperate measures. For example, Glyndwr University in Wales used a ‘recommend a friend’ incentive that rewards an existing student with two hundred pounds if they recommend a friend and their friend accepts a place at the university. During the recent friendly football match between England and Australia in Sunderland on 27th May, an electronic billboard was advertising the University of Wollongong! We wonder what the mackems made of this?


Suppose you are reading this from the faculty lounge in a top-tier research institution. In that case, you are a member of that very fortunate group of institutions that have proven remarkably resilient to change for centuries. Because of the heritage and prestige of the institution, you find yourself working for an organisation that is in the enviable position of marketing a product with relatively inelastic demand. For example, in the USA, each year, prices for university fees inexorably rise and yet, miraculously, students continue to pay. At the Ivy-League institutions, acceptance rates are less than 10%, with Harvard University's acceptance rate less than 3.5%. Stanford University now boasts an all-time low acceptance rate of 4.34% for the class of 2023, continuing a steady downward trend from 5.7% in 2013.

However, most universities operate in a highly competitive student market, with over 17,000 universities worldwide and the central ranking bodies examining only the top 500 institutions.

If you work in a university that is in the business of recruiting as opposed to selecting students, then you have two options:

Option one: Carry on as is, and if you are fortunate, you may survive through a merger or shrink in size and aspiration. You will be forced to close if you are not so lucky. That’s right. It happens all the time. Remember your local video store? And who would invest in print media now?

Option two: Transform the entire institution to an outward-looking, student-centred organisation that places the needs of students as the number one priority, with key strategies and initiatives designed to continually improve every facet of the student experience. Space does not allow us to provide comprehensive details, but it will enable us to finish by making a few points:

• Any person who exchanges money (not to mention their time and energy) for a degree is a customer and has expectations of the service or product they have purchased. And before we receive letters of complaint about academic integrity, we are not advocating giving degrees away or easy marking of exams.

• Customers (students) have expectations. Institutions need to deeply understand these expectations and ensure they are, at a minimum, meeting them. Better universities will exceed such expectations.

• Students are entitled to receive the promises we made when we marketed to them. If we said the student experience would be transformational, it should be.

• A vast body of literature demonstrates that the most successful organisations are the best at delivering customer satisfaction. Universities should start taking student satisfaction more seriously.

• Teaching should be viewed as something other than something that gets in the way of research. Good researchers and good teachers should be recognised, rewarded, and promoted.

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