The audit system is turning UK higher education into a vast shopping mall, American sociology professor George Ritzer tells Walter Ellis
Small, balding and be-jumpered, George Ritzer looks more like an ageing George Costanza, from the television series Seinfeld , than the world's bestselling sociologist. But do not be deceived. This George, whose central thesis, that society has taken on almost all the characteristics of a McDonald's fast-food restaurant, has the sort of charm, confidence and chutzpah of which Jerry Seinfeld's sidekick could only dream.
In one episode of Seinfeld , George bemoans the fact that Jerry has told a potential date he is a marine biologist. "A marine biologist?" George complains. "Why didn't you tell her I was an architect? You know I always wanted to pretend I was an architect."
Today, Costanza would be more than happy to pretend he was a sociologist.
Ritzer, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, is a phenomenon. Few academics achieve their own "ism". In Ritzer's case, it is an "isation", maybe even a canonisation, for he has instantly become the patron saint of drive-through theory. His non-stop work-in-progress, which took the world by storm in 1996, is simple and seductive. It is impossible to contradict and covers all the angles. Best of all, you can learn the base language in a single McSession.
Ritzer's point is the quickening pace of globalisation, with all its implications of uniformity, consumerism and sublimation of the self. In the recently published McDonaldization: The Reader , which he introduces, we see how the professor's Big 'n' Tasty philosophy has itself gone global. There are chapters on McCourts, McPrisons, McCops, McChurches, McSex, McFarming, even McTerrorism. The beauty, and the horror, of the Ritzer Rumination is that it is all too true and there is not a damned thing we can do about it.
Even the ivory towers of academe have been tainted. Ritzer says universities might as well attach a McDonald's Golden Arch to their coats-of-arms. Lecturers would be more honest wearing paper hats than mortarboards for the takeaway revolution is already with us and it is education "to go".
The UK has been affected more than most. Attending a conference of sociologists last year at the University of Kent was, for Ritzer, "a revelation".
"It was a stunning event. The external audit system has changed everything. I view the traditional British university system as different and superior to the American state model, but that's gone now. The audit system has led to the McDonaldisation of British higher education to a much higher degree than we have experienced in the US.
"For example, the syllabus is presented as a kind of contract between professor and student. Once presented, it becomes inviolate. The professor dare not breach the contract or the student can appeal. I regard this as appalling. I see the syllabus as a guide, an indicator of the kind of ground we will cover. But if one particular area turns out to be of greater interest to students, or they're getting more from it than I had thought, then I will stick longer with that and maybe cut something else out.
"This artificial constriction, monitored by audit, has served to McDonaldise the British university system in a single generation. The syllabus has become a fixed menu; the audit has created a rigid system of control that threatens to destroy creativity."
Ritzer's strictures do not stop there. The requirement that academics should publish at a set rate is also high up on his hate list.
"Quantity of publications is what counts today. These feel-the-width comparisons are the worst form of the 'publish or perish' doctrine. It is crass. No one is assessing the quality of what has been published. This is the message that is coming through loud and clear: it is not a delicious Mac they are expected to produce, it is a Big Mac.
"The conflict between traditional teaching and satisfying the market is greater in the UK than in the US, mainly because of continuous reviews and financial restraints. There is also the problem that successive recent governments have determined that a rising proportion of the country's young people should benefit from higher education. This creates demands that are difficult to satisfy.
"In the US, the degree of conflict ebbs and flows with the economy. Right now we're in an era of great cutbacks. Any time universities find themselves facing shortfalls, they turn towards a more consumerist response. But the underlying consumerist trend is clear, and what it has led to is the shopping-mall model of educational consumption.
"Universities look dowdy compared to shopping malls or Disneyland or Las Vegas, and have come under relentless pressure to appear more 'spectacular'. It is a problematic trend. As we move more towards distance learning, with the computer and the internet, the university becomes increasingly an outlet for the franchise. It's a kind of drive-in education: have a taco, park the car, go in for an hour of education."
Ritzer recalls his own undergraduate years at the City College of New York as a time of unstructured intellectual discovery. "I was a C student. I didn't play the game according to the rules. I didn't become a 'good'
student until I reached my late 30s or early 40s. Then I was freed up, with tenure, and could do what I wanted.
"I've always distinguished between the good student and the straight-A student. Such people are not all going to have the most creative and innovative minds. The fact is that McDonaldised universities are set up precisely not to give their students the freedom to think for themselves. They are locked in, put into boxes and it starts before day one. The problem with reviewing applications is that the programme is McDonaldised. We can't talk to and evaluate students. We look at scraps of paper instead.
"Computers and the internet can be a boon to education, but they are used not to enhance the quality of education but to deliver it more 'efficiently' - that is, quickly and cheaply. Dehumnanisation and depersonalisation are becoming the main feature of McDonaldised education. Students don't want to talk to me about ideas, only about grades. They're used to the drive-in and the ATM, and this spills over into their lives. They want to drive past their tutors. They want you to feed them bite-sized McNuggets of information.
"Students used to want to come and talk to me. That has declined precipitously over the years. I don't think you learn much in class. An instructor should inspire his students to go out and find the knowledge they need. That is not the way it is today. Now, it's gotta be good if you've got a lot of it. Universities have become diploma mills. Professors are assembly-line workers, putting in little bits of education know-how as students pass by."
So is he downhearted? Not wholly, for one of the oddest facts of American education to Ritzer is that exceptions keep coming along to disprove the rule.
"Here's the paradox: as bad as the educational system is, we still produce a phenomenal number of gifted people. There is conformity, but as a society we continue to exhibit a capacity for individuality and the individual drive to succeed. Some segments of our student population are not affected by the process. They are immune. We created McDonald's, but we are also the world leaders in creativity, dynamism and initiative. I have no explanation for this."
Costanza would have no explanation to offer either. The actor who played him, Jason Alexander, having failed to deliver an individual sitcom of his own, is reduced to a long-running promotional slot with KFC. His slogan, delivered with a knowing smirk: "There's fast food and then there's KFC."
McDonaldization: The Reader is published by Sage, £23.00. George Ritzer is giving the keynote speech at an Americanisation and the Teaching of American Studies Project conference at the University of Central Lancashire on January 17.