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Getting "value for money", a central theme of the government's higher education green paper, is not a student priority, vice-chancellors have been told.
While ministers expect students to ask for value for money, that is not what occupies them, according to Megan Dunn, President of the National Union of Students.
Rather, they are concerned about the funding for their course and research, and they are worried about their voice being heard, she told delegates at the annual GuildHE conference held this week at the University of Worcester.
Contrary to core messages in the green paper, value for money is “not the language of students", she said.
Her comments were echoed by the president of Worcester's Student Union, Wesley Hudson, who added: "Students don't want to be seen as consumers; we want to be seen as partners."
They came as GuildHE in collaboration with the Student Engagement Partnership launched a new report on Making Student Engagement a Reality, with case studies showing how a range of institutions are working in partnership with students.
Ms Dunn said students do believe excellent teaching should be at the heart of universities and should have a profile to match research. She highlighted the danger of attaching a tuition fee increase to teaching standards, warning that “teaching excellence ... shouldn't be an extra burden on students."
There was general acceptance that describing students and universities as "buyers and sellers" falls well short of capturing the essence of a relationship which, although it does involve a financial transaction, relies on mutual commitment, partnership, and collaboration.
The question of how to judge value for money in higher education was raised by Charlie Bertoia, students' union president at the Anglo-European College of Chiropractic, Bournemouth.
"It means something different for different students," he said, with some students for example expecting state of the art sport facilities while others have different priorities.
The universities' minister, Jo Johnson, has urged the higher education sector to make it clear how they spend tuition fees. The idea that students focus on this as much as, if not more than, value for money, was suggested by Chichester University's students' union president, Jodie Hope:
"I think transparency is important - it's important for students to know where there money is going," she said.
When asked to describe what they regarded as excellent teaching, the student representatives offered insightful answers:
"Knowing your students and knowing what learning and teaching suits them, " Ms Hope said.
"Updating what you teach and not just teaching what you taught ten years ago or when you did your PhD. Remembering , as well, what it's like to be a student," offered Charlie Bertoia.
For Wesley Hudson it was important to prepare students for their careers: "People want to get a job. (Excellent teaching is) making sure people are set up for their career path."
While students did not prioritise value for money, they still expected to see a return for their fees. Transparency of spending, excellent teaching and equipping them with skills for successful careers, were all important expectations.
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