Do universities offer a service or a product?
This, at heart, is the existential crisis that’s been afflicting the university system over the last decade or so, maybe longer. The answer has varied from one country to another, and often in an unexpected way.
The “service” angle seeks to rebrand universities as businesses. Their customers are their students, and the service they provide is to give those customers a degree. The customers, naturally, pay for the service.
The “product” angle is closer to an older – though unstated – conception of the role of higher education. Here, the universities are there to perform a function in society at large – they produce and provide a cadre of highly-educated graduates, who will benefit the nation through the more skilled jobs they are able to undertake.
“Service” means the universities, now effectively rebranded as higher education companies, compete with one another for customers. And the competition is becoming pretty unsavoury. At the top end of the scale, there’s the obsession with rankings in a burgeoning global university champions league, as the higher ranking increases the value of the service. The lower end of the scale is beginning to develop a distinct whiff of exploitation, with overseas students being milked for higher fees and kept on the accounts regardless of attendance or language competence.
Hand in hand with the “service” line, of course, is the rising tide of tuition fees. Because if universities are businesses, then it’s not really incumbent on governments to support them. And if the aim is to get as many customers/students into the system as possible, then it’s hard to blame the politicians for keeping well away from a potential financial sinkhole.
The “product” angle of course all sounds very well-intentioned and idealistic, but what it amounts to is society making a huge financial investment in its school-leavers – and a risky one at that. There’s absolutely no guarantee of successfully producing a competent graduand from a school-leaver, and if they drop out or drastically underperform then society’s financial investment has been wasted.
There’s no right answers here, of course. The upside to a “service” set-up is that it at least provides plenty of options (even if that brings in the risk of exploitative/parasitic behaviour); plus, if students are paying for their education, they’re probably more likely to give it serious thought and not enrol carelessly. The downside to a “product” system is that society’s investment could well be wasted.
Perhaps the great irony though is what countries currently best exemplify these rival philosophies. The UK, with a strongly hierarchical university system that would appear to be ideally suited to the “product” angle, has embraced the “service” line instead – tuition fees are rising, courses are multiplying, league table competition is intensifying. Conversely, Germany, with a much more egalitarian approach to its higher education system that would be a perfect foundation for education-as-industry, has instead gone more and more down the “product” route – no tuition fees!