Adrift in a market of the self

Who in higher education gains from commercialisation? The values it promotes do not chime with the ethos of the academy

September 11, 2014

Much of the critique of the commercialisation of higher education focuses on the poisonous effect it has on academic life.

In the opening pages of their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia, respectively, set the scene with this narrative, which they say has undermined the “belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; the idea of openness and not ownership; the professor as a pursuer of truth, and not an entrepreneur”.

The authors, who won wide acclaim for their earlier book, Academically Adrift, do not disagree with this analysis, but argue that it focuses too much on the day-to-day experience of lecturers and professors, and not enough on the people for whom, as the market would have it, they now work: the students.

Administrators have shifted institutional emphasis from students’ academic and moral development to their personal growth and well-being

The consumerist approach, which few publicly endorse but many believe has been tacitly accepted by university leaders, is supposed to work for the student: they pay your wages, the argument goes, so you will make damn sure that you provide value for money – or face the consequences.

But Arum and Roksa argue that it has been a disaster for students, who, like frogs in a saucepan, have been sold a warm bath when in fact their intellectual curiosity and crucial elements of the teacher-student contract are being cooked.

“Educators have increasingly ceded their authority to students, and administrators have shifted institutional emphasis from students’ academic and moral development to their personal growth and well-being,” they write.

We hear more from Arum and Roksa in an in-depth interview this week, and their theme also ties in with our cover feature, in which Tom Palaima, professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, extols the virtues of listening – really listening – in higher education.

Being present is not enough. Yet in an echo of the theme of Aspiring Adults Adrift, Palaima warns that “all the incentives in our systems of higher education…are structured now to promote an intensive self-absorption and self-mindedness”.

Who, then, benefits from the remodelling of higher education as we know it?

The staff? Few say so: author and professor of literature Marina Warner, writing in the London Review of Books last week, drew comparisons between the ethos emerging in many universities and Chinese communist corporatism “where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them”. The government? It’s hard to see how, when the switch to a high-fee system in the UK may cost more than the system it replaced. It must be the students, then?

The irony is that in the commercial world, the most-admired companies – the innovators and those that tend also to be the most successful – are almost always led by values, putting ideas and integrity ahead of short-termism and the most rapacious elements of commercial ideology.

Universities have all these things in spades, but many of their most passionate supporters are sounding the alarm. It would be foolish not to listen.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (2)

A very good leader backed by the beautiful work published by the Times Higher Education on this week's issue. Staff and students, like frogs in a saucepan… are being cooked… Passionate supporters of ideas and integrity are sounding the alarm ahead of short-termism and the more rapacious elements of commercial ideology. Only one issue where one might differ. It would be a pity if THE readers (or editors) had to accept that the commercialisation of universities is a path that once taken has no return. If Government, staff and students are the losers, surely a more radical pronouncement is required? THE has also reported who makes the big money and has a vested interest to count everything in monetary terms...
In modern remake of King Kong, its remarked that one character's tragedy is to destroy the things he loves the most. So with higher education, students, staff, government and the general public love higher education. Broadly they want it to be 'excellent and outside the market'. Many students at the time also want it to low fibre, easy and fun. They want a lot of personal attention and positive stroking. In 20 years of teaching, I have consistently observed for my and my colleagues courses comments / scores complaining about overwork from over half the class. I have yet to see 1 that said 'I am not working hard enough please make it more tough' Over 20 years what was once getting it off ones chest "Dr X is boring or too hard' , is now taken very seriously. Some students demand action 'we are adults', administrators keen for no negative publicity insist courses are changed. Staff want the course to be challenging and stimulating. They also want time to do their research and they are not happy being 'directly accountable' to students through byzantine reviews. Government and the public wants well educated students, they are skeptical about the value of some courses which have high dropout or low graduate employability or low contact time. They also want it to cost nothing or at least with iphones get 'more' for their money. These tensions cannot be resolved by a single solution, so no compromise can last, so we lurch around with the loser determined to change the settlement. Can we go back to student's view of their education being taken into account but not dominating? No, students are not going to behave as we did and be grateful for what we got. The office of complaints and numerous other pressure groups are not going to give up drumming business. Can we then create a system in which the majority students give useful criticism? It requires reflection that busy students rarely have time for during their studies. Using graduates to score University with the benefit of five years post-Uni experience could be enormously useful in this regard. As for staff, we need to be honest about what students can and cannot expect from us. Some of us are not nice, some of us are cranky and impatient but almost all of us love our subject and thats what we offer. We need to assess less and reclaim teaching assessment from administration. The reams of procedure and well intentioned rules, means many academics retreat from teaching and see it as a drudge to be got through as painlessly as possible. Teaching costs rise each year, since small group teaching remains labour intensive unlike car making costs do not come down year on year. Enter the government and public who wont pay the rising cost of this for ever more people, yet at the same time want more people to go. Having made promises, they can't keep they distort the system to make it look like they have. All the incentives are for cheap bums on seats low contact courses with high marks, by this route do we destroy what we love.

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