Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can't Be Bought

January 17, 2013

Among the many processes that are said to define contemporary English universities are those of commercialisation, bureaucratisation, infantilisation and marketisation. To this list Joanna Williams adds another, that of consumerisation. In each instance, there are cases (invariably negative) to be made for the changes that are said to have overtaken English higher education in recent decades. Late last year, the Council for the Defence of British Universities was launched with the aim of contesting many of the practices being advocated, or instituted, within the academy.

But in all cases, and whatever the origin of the critique of current policy about higher education, central questions about the past and the future often go unaddressed. Williams, and indeed other commentators, presents us with evidence of various forms of questionable practice today, but in constructing and reading these catalogues of absurdity, there is often more than a whiff of nostalgia over the departure from a state that, if not quite a golden age, was at least a more acceptable past. Many of the critics of today’s universities were formed by and in that culture, and it is perhaps naive not to recognise the impact of that experience, in which many things actually were quite different.

Thus in making that connection, we might have to think about what we are defending about ourselves, every bit as much as the universities that we attended. This responsibility requires, it seems to me, a quite extraordinary degree of self-control in the face of overblown mission statements; pointless competition and the deliberate encouragement of the “neurosis of small difference”; lectures to first-year students about “employment” skills; the widespread casualisation of teaching; and of course, the regimes of regulation that make nonsense of the term “consumer”. (Very few consumers, students please note, have to eat the dinner they ordered.)

The case against these changes in higher education, which Williams here supplies vividly, is not difficult to make, even if some of the snapshots of evidence she supplies might well have benefited from including the next frame in the film. (For example, those parents anxiously taking leave of their children at the start of their first year are in fact the same furious parents seen at the end of the year chasing missing offspring who have apparently disappeared, leaving behind little more than various forms of compost.)

But in providing these vignettes - and all universities are replete with them - there is still a need to consider what universities should be for without falling back into all those comfortable assumptions about what we have lost. At the same time, we might also consider, rather more fully than simply supplying accounts of one aspect of change, some of those connections between universities and their social world.

In doing this, we might turn to the eloquent account of what universities should be doing that has been provided by Lord Rees of Ludlow and his colleagues at the CDBU. In that account, two aspects need special attention: the assertion of the value of teaching, and the lunacy of what might be described as the “pay for your own job” culture of competition for grants. Both these factors, I would argue, are far more important than any of the apparent consequences of changes in higher education pointed to by Williams (along with others). Yet at the same time, these questions cannot be addressed without reference to funding, taxation, social privilege and intellectual authority.

To take the first of those issues: just one trip down (my) memory lane takes me to being taught seminars by Michael Oakeshott and Ralph Miliband. In the 1960s, this aspect of higher education - namely that undergraduate teaching was the responsibility of eminent, learned and scholarly individuals - was taken for granted. In 2012, it is instead far too common, in too much of the higher education sector, for undergraduates to be taught by research students. In some cases this may work well, but what is important here is not the contingent but the general refusal to recognise that the democratisation of higher education is not about getting more individuals into the institution but about getting the institutional values - the value of specialist, complex, contradictory thought - into the student. That process is difficult and inherently insecure, but without that acknowledgement it is all too easy to construct aims for higher education that are organised around a binary of the socially “useful” versus the “liberal” education.

One of the many comments that many teachers in higher education will have used more than once is: “I think it’s more complicated than that.” As a mantra, it can clearly lead to all kinds of pointless speculation, but in the present context of higher education it is entirely appropriate. Thus it is not enough, I would venture, to suggest that higher education is being overtaken by any particular form of cultural appropriation (be it consumerisation or anything else), but neither is it enough to return to those esteemed liberal values closely connected to various forms of social privilege that lie outside the educational. Institutions and institutional life do not exist in a material void, and if the energy of economic need, greed and aspiration clearly supports (and endorses) various forms of entirely questionable academic practice, so too does the refusal to engage with the question of how democratic access to the sheer wonder and vitality of intellectual life can be achieved.

So to offer the statement that “learning can’t be bought” seems to me to be misguided. Learning can be, has been and no doubt will be bought, but this should not prevent us from considering the ways in which, as in other debates about the public sector, liberalism (and/or the idea of changing “attitudes”) is not enough. Ideas about changing values and practices have to have a more secure location, and discussion, within wider contexts than the presentation of the merely ridiculous.

Mary Evans is centennial professor at the Gender  Institute, London School of Economics.

Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought

By Joanna Williams

Bloomsbury Academic

208pp, £24.99. ISBN 9781441183606

Published 17 January 2013

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