This idea is nonsensical and is peddled by people who have no idea whatsoever of how education works and how markets and incentives functions. At best it is nothing but a veneer of poorly concocted good intentions, at worst it is a cynical ploy to get young people’s money and time.
Let’s assume a young person planning to go to University. This person has no way of knowing what the job market will be in a few years time (dependent on the choice to get or not postgraduate education). In fact nobody does, and if they say they do they are fools or liars: if the future where so easy to predict the economic collapse of 2008 would have never happened. Thus the prospective student has no way of knowing what degree to pursue to have the best chances of being gainfully employed after finishing university. Our prospective student can try to make an informed guess on what the job market will look like in a few years, but there are no long terms guarantees about this guess. All in all a prospective student cannot be seen as a consumer or a client because consumers and clients should be able to make informed decisions, not just hopeful guesses. Students are 'sold' something (education? maybe) on some vague promises by an actor (the University) which has equally no clue about the future, but has a strong incentive in taking the student's money.
Once a student has enrolled, the idea that we can have a student centred learning experience is also unlikely to be the best for the students themselves. First of all, students do not know a priori what matters or not in their chosen subject. Are the lecturers being precious demanding that difficult topic X is a core component of the course, or do they actually know that, difficult or not, knowledge and understanding of topic X is fundamental to be able to understand the remaining parts that particular field of study? Letting students drive their learning based on their uneducated opinions puts the students themselves at risk of missing out on crucial parts of their education – once more ‘the student as consumer’ is likely to short-change the student because it demands the student to have knowledge and experience that the student, by definition, does not posses.
The problems do not stop here. Let’s keep thinking of difficult topic X. Would students be right to complain if they fail their exams in topic X? How do we decide whether the fault was in the teaching or in the lack of hard work from the part of the students? It is obvious that failing a test, of getting poor scores is going to be a major source of friction between staff and student. How does arbitration happen in the ‘student as a consumer model’? A friend once told me that he had pre-med student complain to him that the course he was teaching (statistical epidemiology) was too hard and they were concerned that failing it or getting poor marks would jeopardise their chances of getting to medical school. The idea that they had to grasp the statistics at the base of the course to be able to understand the epidemiology of diseases to best care for their future patients had never crossed their minds. While students do complain about their teaching, in fairness we can only take these complaints seriously in those cases when students do actually do all the work required to pass with good marks. Universities being what they are (i.e. admin driven bureaucracies), the fact that 'the customers' could complain can create a negative incentive to make courses and exams more easy, just to avoid upsetting the students and preventing their complaints, whether these complaints are justified or not. Once more the ‘students as consumers’ are sorely short-changed: on one hand there is a real risk that their education will be watered down to avoid any possible troubles, and on the other it will be impossible to develop new and more effective ways of teaching because anything that might upset the status quo would obviously be discouraged. There is also the piffling issue that, should universities go down the route of watering down students’ education we might affect the people who will deal with these students once they reach a professional capacity.
I am therefore quite alarmed by the fact the UK government is publishing a Green Paper, innocuously titled “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Student Mobility and Student Choice”, because it aims to enshrine the notion of ‘students as consumers’, which is going to harm the very same students it seeks to champion. The road to hell is paved by good intentions, but the current trend in Academia 2.0 is not really helping anyone.