'Delivery'? We are teachers, not milkmen

December 8, 2011

Today's corporate vocabulary, freely and unthinkingly deployed by university leaders, was a product of the military. It was then adopted by the first modern big businesses, the railways, in the 19th century. In the 20th century, especially after 1945, it was embraced by business more generally before its unthinking assimilation by the public sector.

Some of it is especially undermining: take, for example, the free use made by many academics of "delivery", a term that predated the insidious neoliberal business-speak highlighted in the conference Universities under Attack ("Our bottom line is not the bottom line", 1 December). Like a bottle of milk left on the doorstep - full, homogeneous and ready to open and consume - courses are "delivered" to students. "Delivery" implies the end stage of a one-way transaction where something is made, marketed, sold and consumed by students. It fails to describe the potential richness of the interaction between tutor and tutee, which at its best can lead to unpredictable and unexpected outcomes.

"Delivery" has a close cousin, of course: "learning outcomes", which are set ahead of the "delivery" of courses and which work in the same predetermined way. These may confine teachers and students to what is quality assured and approved, resulting in courses that fail to express the indeterminacy of knowledge and understanding.

Let's watch our language and make sure that it expresses what we believe is special about higher education.

Geoffrey Channon, Deputy chief executive (academic), The Higher Education Academy

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