College students should be treated as partners not consumers – HEA

Higher Education Authority report advises against US ‘market model’ approach

Students at third level should be treated as partners rather than "detached consumers", according to a new report produced by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

The report says the student-as-consumer relationship, which is increasingly common in US and UK universities, treats students as purchasers of a contract for education.

Instead, it says students who are active members of an institution have a strong sense of allegiance and commitment.

The report is the result of a HEA working group report which examined ways of boosting student engagement.


The group, chaired by Prof Tom Collins, was established by the HEA in 2014 to develop a set of principles to assist higher education institutions in enhancing student engagement.

Prof Collins said: "Student engagement essentially means student involvement in governance and management, quality assurance, and teaching and learning.

“While students are ultimately responsible for their own learning and level of engagement, effective student engagement also depends on institutional conditions, policies and culture that enable and encourage students to get involved.”

He said the benefits of effective student engagement can include better retention rates, higher levels of satisfaction with educational outcomes, and better student/staff relationships on college campuses.

Developmental model
Overall, the working group favoured the "developmental model" for Irish higher education institutions, over the "market model" common in the US and, increasingly, the UK.

The market model is based on a view of the student as a consumer. In contrast, the developmental model sees students as partners in a learning community, with both the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

The report recommends that all higher education institutions complete a staff evaluation and students work together to evaluate formal and informal student engagement practices and opportunities at every level.

Once these self-evaluations are complete, institutions and students should co-author a student engagement policy that places the principles included in the working group’s report at the heart of each institution.

The principles, according to the HEA, include: democracy, transparency, inclusivity and diversity, feedback, professionalism and collegiality.

Chief executive officer of the HEA,Tom Boland, said achieving successful student engagement was not about enforcement and compliance.

Rather, it was about building up a meaningful culture and two-way communications.

"Student participation in higher education governance in Ireland is a legal requirement, but representation on various governance bodies is not sufficient on its own," he said.

“Both formal and informal mechanisms, as well as parity of esteem between students and staff, are extremely important. The culture of engagement must incorporate all staff and students, and reflect the diversity of the student body, incorporating mature, part-time, distance learning and international students.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent