Supermarket sweep

Kevin Fong discovers fear in a campus mini-mart shelf full of Pot Noodles

July 10, 2008

I have seen the future and the future is supermarkets. I have been investigating this thread for some time and take this opportunity to warn you of the Armageddon that approaches.

My university has a quaint little shop that sells innocuous little things such as shampoo and deodorant and pencils. To the casual observer it is in appearance little more than a plucky but rather limited enterprise. But closer inspection and a second's thought generates many questions. How does it stay in business? Where is the sustainability? Who is it that buys all those Pot Noodles? But all is not as it first seems. What superficially looks like a meek corner shop struggling for survival in the higher education hubbub is in fact a complex sleeper agent operation. It is a Trojan Horse team from the corporate sector waiting for the right opportunity to tunnel through the thin walls dividing it from the rest of the university, with a view to engulfing the whole campus physically and philosophically.

Some might say that this is merely a manifestation of a poorly controlled state of paranoid psychosis, but the evidence is there for all who wish to assemble it. First off there is the growing obsession with metrics; the idea that things have no intrinsic value unless something about them can be measured and entered into a performance indicators chart. Where did that idea come from? Apparently not from our mathematics departments. They and their brethren in the International Mathematical Union, who you might imagine know a thing or two about numbers and objective assessment of value, recently published a report warning of the dangers of blind faith in said metrics and journal impact scores as well as the propensity for the misuse of these statistics in assessing scientific research.

Next, the gradual creep of David Brent-style business language into everyday university conversations: talk of market forces and commercialisation, people referring to students as clients, assessments of academic efficiency. How do you measure inefficiency in a taught academic course? Inefficiency here, I have come to learn, means lack of popular appeal. A case of never mind the quality, feel the audience (not literally of course - that would just get you into all sorts of trouble). But is a lecture series "inefficient" because very few people want to do it? Is it less valuable because of that fact? Ask the bloke behind the counter in the college mini-mart with the price-label gun in his hand. I'll bet he has all the answers.

I have had my suspicions about these supermarket guys for some time. Look around you: every college I have ever visited seems to have one of these wildly unprofitable convenience stores slap bang in the middle of prime campus real estate. Coincidence? I think not. They're just lining up, getting ready for a co-ordinated attack on truth, justice and the academic way of life. Any day now you'll wake to columns of checkout guys with bar-code scanners, led by accountants, marching though the campuses itemising and costing everything in their path. Resistance will be futile.

There is not much time left in which to act; all that we stand for is at stake. Universities are every day behaving more like supermarkets and less and less like seats of learning. At the same time supermarkets tell us that they are going to be offering degrees. Can't you see what's happening? The boundaries between high-street megastores and our learned institutions are being blurred beyond all recognition. You will one day be sauntering merrily down the frozen foods aisle, minding your own business and then you'll turn the corner and wham - you'll be staring at a row of shelves stacked with diploma certificates and honours degrees on special offer.

Perhaps it is more benign than this. Perhaps it is a move towards a seamless and more convenient life. Perhaps it just reflects the natural progression and order of things - in its own way the ultimate expression of convergence. In this brave new world, armed only with their mobile-phone-cum-personal-organiser-cum-stereo-cum-camera-and-debit-card people will be able to stride in to do their grocery shopping, buy some clothes, a TV and some kitchen appliances, grab a posh and expensive coffee and then hang around the higher education aisle for two or three years to get a degree. They will call them super-university-markets. No one need ever go home again.

For those who work within such organisations there will be pluses and minuses. On the minus side, in addition to generating a healthy turnover of useful research output, staff will also be expected to know the answers to broader questions about the super-university-market environment. These will include questions such as "What field of study offers the best value for money when considering the cost per kilogramme?" and "Which aisle can I find dried oregano in?" On the plus side, the coursework and exam-marking load will become much easier. There will still be lots of it to do but there will be no need to decide whether students have got their facts straight: everyone will be getting top marks - the customer, after all, is always right.

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