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Why we should resist the idea of student as consumer

What are the consequences of the marketisation of higher education in England? Our consumerist society may get the education it deserves, but will it be the education it really wants or needs?

In a marketised consumerist culture, it is not surprising that many students arrive on campus as well-tuned consumers. Their wealth of experience in commercial markets has shaped much of the way they respond to their desires, to opportunity, and to choices they face. They have adopted, as Erich Fromm put it, a ‘marketing personality’. As part of this baggage bought with them to university, students widely buy into the idea of consumer sovereignty.

Often inadvertently this stance acts to reduce the potential value that studying at degree level can offer. For example many students will opt to satisfy whimsical personal tastes and preferences rather than immerse themselves into the angst of deep learning. Instead of the university being a space to reflect on this culture, recent moves wrapped up in the funding changes, means the university is now supposed fully to embrace this consumer culture.

It is perhaps no surprise. Democratically elected governments inevitably seek to maintain sufficient public support to retain power. It follows that the general public through their expressed political will (or lack of it) are in part responsible for a market-oriented HE sector. Top-up fees and other private sector initiatives in HE can seem to reduce the burden of public spending and so forms part of a larger discourse advocating lower tax and less direct government involvement. Society gets the higher education it deserves. But will it get the higher education it really wants or needs?

The core purpose of this article is to reflect on the consequences (often unintentional) for the HE sector of the demands to make it responsive to market drivers. A major reason that government and institutional management turned to markets as an organising principle was because they seem to hold, as an assumed fact, that expansion of the sector - particularly at the speed policy-makers required - could only be achieved in this way. To governments, such expansion seems like a requirement if the economy is to remain globally competitive. Hence fees in order to help fund expansion and make students feel that they are paying for a service; league tables to make the product offering transparent to consumers (or customers); performance-related pay to ensure that staff deliver the required service. This leads to a key point that I want to make: that the very process of becoming marketised in order to achieve specific objectives significantly shapes what an expanded higher education sector actually becomes. Lurking in this are many unintended or accidental consequences.

Market-driven HE results in education that places too much value on speed and not enough on time to reflect. It looks to use economic criteria such as ‘added value’ to judge worthiness where such a measure is not only difficult to measure but distracts from good learning. It creates environments where growth for growth’s sake perpetuates the need for ever more marketisation. And, most importantly, it produces an environment where the idea that students consume a service is widely accepted.

The most significant set of tensions created by marketisation exists between the expectations of students as consumers (the rather simplistic mantra of ’customer is king’) and requirements and expectations placed on them in their role as student learners (where they simply cannot be lord of all they survey).  

What may seem a positive move to ‘put the student at the heart of the system’ within a market-oriented context, means accepting and even pandering to consumerist attitudes and behaviour of students who increasingly see it as their right to get what they want from a HE sector as if it is like any other service industry (a holiday, bank account, or restaurant, for example). What could possibly be risky in putting the ‘student at the centre’ of the university’s activities? Well if it’s a populist ruse to distract from other issues like under-funding, then a lot. The real dangers will take place if and when this drive to a marketised HE is successful and the student is transformed into the consumer of degree level products. Why? Because that will mean tutors and scholars will have been changed into service providers.

Just imagine for a moment what the consumer student body might begin to want and desire; note I have not used the term ‘need’ as ‘desire’ and ‘want’ are the more appropriate consumerist terms.

A focus on what’s currently in vogue that largely ignores the bigger picture and neglects a rounded perspective and the longer term view of what might be important?

Less effort directed at producing research papers and ‘going off’ to conferences so that the tutors can be more readily available – what fills the libraries of the future will be for others to puzzle over.

Getting the certificate (with the 2:1 badge stamped on it in big bold letters) never mind that such a focus inevitably reduces the value of the very certificate because less effort is placed on the pleasure and value of learning for learning sake.

Extra work beyond the classroom kept to a minimum please – after all many students have other jobs they have to do in order to get disposable cash, and as for non-assessed work...!

Complexity, ambiguity, challenge...hold on a minute they are paying for this, and their future career now depends even more on the results. So actually can we have simplicity and clarity, particularly when it really matters (assessment).

Horizons closely aligned with the first job acquisition – so placements on demand would be useful, as would more training in interview techniques and the like. But the opportunity cost is both a limited range of knowledge and understanding dictated by current industry practice, and even less time spent on developing critical faculties – they very ‘ability’ most useful in a world full of uncertainty, ambiguity and opacity.  Put another way, by responding to student customer wishes, the opportunity for the student to be transformed as a person are limited or even lost.

Why should we respond to these market-led changes to the university? HE remains primarily publicly funded; it belongs to us all as citizens. As such we should tolerate nothing less than the social and cultural value of the University to be as important as the economic. The quality of learning must not be sacrificed for other consumerist objectives since pedagogic quality is a fundamental feature of university education. There is no point to growth in student numbers or in more ‘market share’ of applicants, or brighter cafeterias, or higher leaguer table positions, unless such things feed into enhancing the university as a place for young adults to mature.

Dr Richard Scullion is a co-editor of ‘The marketisation of HE and the Student as Consumer published by Routledge.

If you want to share your views on this topic why not register and come along to a debate about the ‘Politicisation of Higher Education’. Monday December 5th 1-5pm at the Houses of Parliament. Click here to register for this event. 


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