NUPSA President Ash McIntyre talks about some important advocacy events we’ve attended recently on your behalf, and addresses that all-important question: are students customers?


 

Hello one and all! I say this every month, but the time really does fly by.

This month, I’d like to commit my article to a particular opportunity NUPSA was given to discuss the postgraduate student experience at UON with the University’s Executive Committee and University Council. As UON considers its strategic plan and vision for the future, student voice and contribution is paramount to ensuring that student needs are factored into decision making. Hugh, our fabulous Project Officer, represented us at a gathering of the Executive Committee on June 17, and I spoke on your behalf at University Council’s meeting this past week, about some of the things we felt needed to be considered in the University’s vision for the future. I will break down the main points we made for you now.

First, I discussed an issue close to my heart: mental health. With more and more research coming out about the mental health issues arising in the postgraduate student space, this is an issue we need to be aware of for the future success and well-being of our students. I broke down the many factors that feed into these risks, including things like:

  • the high workload
  • the need to supplement your research with additional teaching experience, conference papers, publications, etc.
  • the unreliability of the job market
  • cultural shifts
  • being away from friends and family
  • needing to study whilst supporting friends and family
  • financial struggles
  • isolation and loneliness
  • fear of failure

I contextualised this by explaining the cost of living in Newcastle against the average rate of scholarships, and the pressure placed on students to succeed quickly so they can move on and make enough to support themselves. I then moved on to discuss student spaces (both social and work spaces), and the importance of investing time and money in facilitating community in the postgraduate cohort. This is especially important for research and distance/online students, many of whom may never even meet another student.

I finished by discussing the need for open communication about the changes occurring, and the need to consult and inform students, bringing them into the conversation and making them a part of where the University is going.

These kinds of opportunities are important to us, as they give us a chance to paint a picture of the student experience based on all of the things we hear from you as a cohort. If you’d like further information on what Hugh and I discussed, feel free to contact us and ask. And if you have any feedback on things you think should be considered when we get these opportunities to share your experiences, let us know.

Otherwise, I’d like to use this article to gauge your opinion on a comment that was made prior to my presentation to University Council. This comment was made at the beginning of our introduction (myself and Taylor, who spoke for undergraduate students):

“Now, let’s hear from the customers!”

The idea that students are customers reminds us of a shift in the notion of what a University is: from an institution of knowledge, education, and the pursuit of progress, to a business. There is a lot implied by the idea of students as customers. It implies that a student arrives at University and purchases a product. It implies a relatively straightforward exchange. It implies a core value on the part of the business in attaining a profit. And it negates the complexity of what the student experience actually is, and the additional steps, processes, and growth that must be achieved to attain the ‘product’ – the degree.

For me, it also challenges my understanding of what a degree is. I’m sure we have all joked about the “piece of paper” that proves we can do things. But what goes into achieving that piece of paper, is more than an exchange of money for a product. It is years of self-development, learning, making mistakes, and growing as a human to hopefully demonstrate that you have done all of these things enough to earn what that piece of paper represents.

If I am a customer, it is implied that I can walk in with my credit card held out and be given whatever piece of paper I require for the goal I am trying to achieve. That is not what a degree is. Perhaps it is naïve of me to say this, but I have always had a rather romantic notion of what a University’s role was within a community. It was a powerhouse of knowledge and innovation, where a commitment to scholarly enquiry created an environment that looked to the future and how we could change it for the better.

Its graduates were taught to think differently, to advance knowledge and give back to their communities, and think ethically and productively within their fields. (In case you haven’t picked up on it, I am an Arts student, but surely these things are universal!) It was not a business where anyone could walk in, and simply walk out again with that all-important piece of paper.

As universities seem to be redefining studenthood and degrees, they are implicitly redefining what we consider to be knowledge as well. Typical catchcries of contemporary universities involve ‘engaging with industry’, and placing disproportionate value upon tangible, quantifiable outcomes such as awards, fellowships and grant funding. A key consequence of this preoccupation is that we begin to see a hierarchical order that dictates which knowledge is more valuable – not just to the university, but to our community and our broader society.

Is some of our knowledge less valuable because we can’t show physical, reportable results, or point to a dollar value in order to justify our efforts? Is some of our knowledge less valuable because we are developing new ways of thinking or seeing the world, or ‘only’ studying books, music or art? We’ve seen significant student anxiety in fields such as the humanities, where there is not such a clear line between ‘industry’ and knowledge production.

So, I wonder what you think a university is. Do you consider yourself a customer? If so, what does this mean for you? Or, like me, do you struggle to come to terms with the idea of student as customer?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Because for me, what it takes to earn that piece of paper and achieve something with it, takes much more than me paying a sum of money and going along for the ride.

 

Ash McIntyre
NUPSA President

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