The mentality that portrays students as consumers restricts the true intellectual choice available to them, argues Frank Furedi.
The rhetoric of student choice is all the rage in higher education. "Think of them as your valued customers," a beleaguered new-university administrator told me the other week. Ministers and their officials continually talk up the virtues of the education market and demand that universities treat their students as consumers.
Initially, this consumerist language was treated by many academics as a passing fad and became an object of scorn and humour, but now it is rarely contested. Student choice is promoted as a positive institutional objective. According to the post-Dearing consensus, the consumer model represents the long-overdue emancipation of students from the old elitist culture of deference. Through the mechanism of the market, students hitherto marginalised and silenced are now given a powerful voice as consumers. Thankfully, the cowed submissive student of the 1960s has been replaced by the fiercely powerful customer of the 21st century.
So the question worth asking is: "Ought the satisfaction of the student customer be one of the central objectives of the university?" From the perspective of the development of a healthy academic life, the answer must be a resounding NO! The main reason for rejecting the premise of "choice" is that the moment students begin to regard themselves as customers of academic education, their intellectual development is likely to be compromised. Degrees can be bought; an understanding of a discipline cannot. That is why customer satisfaction has little to do with gaining a university education.
Customer satisfaction and choice make sense in relation to the goods and services that are, or at least ought to be, on the periphery of university life. So, for example, the "customer service policy" of the University of Lincoln undertakes to provide consumers with "accurate and up-to-date information about careers".
In the same vein, Glasgow has been celebrated as a "five-star" destination for students seeking a great nightlife. The Virgin 2003 Alternative Guide To British Universities promises punters that there is "never a dull day" in Glasgow.
University residence is also getting the star treatment. The English Tourism Council has started grading college rooms - because so many are let out to tourists. The market can provide choice in relation to geographic location, nightlife, facilities and, most important of all, atmosphere. Thus, a struggling Bradford University was able to increase the number of its student applicants by advertising itself as a future European Capital of Culture and by basking in the reflected glory of local hero Gareth Gates, of Pop Idol fame.
Unfortunately, the provision of academic teaching does not easily fit into the paradigm of consumption. University education becomes something else if it is bought and sold. Instead of a relationship between teacher and student, it turns into a transaction dominated by influences that have little to do with education. For all its association with empowerment, the act of consuming education relegates students to a passive role.
Whether we like it or not, knowledge needs to be learnt, not consumed. The provision and acquisition of knowledge depends on establishing a creative tension between teaching and learning. Such teaching does not rely merely on imparting information, but on the transmission of the kind of knowledge that could stimulate students to work out their own ideas. Such research-based knowledge cannot be standardised and transformed into a pre-packaged consumer good. It is interactive and subjective, and it relies on exciting interest in the subject matter.
The orientation towards the customer has not improved the quality of university life. There are many factors that account for the stagnation of intellectual life in British campuses. One has been the inappropriate application of consumer and market-like mechanisms to higher education. Since academic education is only formally subject to commodification, market-like principles acquire a superficial exhortative character. We have pseudo-markets, pseudo-customers and pseudo-consumers.
Instead of the whip hand of the market, a growing army of bureaucrats regulates academic life. The auditor runs the system and, as we all know, it is far from clear just what is being audited. The attempt to reduce the qualitative process of intellectual engagement to a series of output figures makes little sense. There is simply no way of quantifying quality when it comes to intellectual exploration and imparting of knowledge.
Policy-makers and their officials understand this dilemma and periodically try to find artificial ways of introducing forms of control that resemble the pressure of market forces. It was in this vein that Baroness Blackstone, the former minister in charge of university education, floated the idea of using student feedback as the basis on which lecturers'
promotion and salary enhancement would be based. In February 2001, she told the Commons education select committee that taking evidence from students - who, according to Blackstone, "should know best" - was an excellent way of making decisions about academics' salaries. Recently, it was reported that Blackstone's very bad idea has been recycled. It appears that the delayed white paper on higher education will propose that a new form of student appraisal be used to set performance-related pay for academics.
Many colleagues have already pointed out that the extension of performance-related pay would have a divisive impact on the academic community. However, the use of student appraisal to determine the career prospects of academics would have an even greater destructive outcome on academic life. Experience shows that when governments set the consumer against professionals in the public sector, the situation invariably deteriorates into one of conflict. This approach, which was systematically pursued in Britain in the 1980s, had the predictable consequence of diminishing the status of professionals and the service they provided. It is worth recalling that the 1980s were the decade when government "empowered" consumers by giving them choice. Do you recall the Patients'
Charter, the Rail Passengers' Charter and all the other charters issued at the time? These initiatives provided only the illusion of choice, but they also had the effect of diminishing trust between the public and the service provider.
The promotion of student choice and the threat to use student assessment as an instrument to discipline academics is likely to do for the university sector what the empowerment of the consumer did for the National Health Service and schools. Blackstone's idea that the customer knows best fundamentally alters the relationship between university teacher and student. A relationship based on collaboration is swiftly transformed into one that is characterised by a basic conflict of interest. Ideas of service, vocation or intellectual pride will swiftly give way to self-serving calculation. Academics will flatter rather than teach. The education bureaucracy's promotion of the consumerist agenda will not improve the quality of university student's intellectual experience.
But that is not surprising, since this agenda is bereft of pedagogical aspirations. Its aim is to artificially build consumer pressure onto a sector that cannot be managed effectively through the market. Ironically, by forcing academics to go down this road, students will have less intellectual choice than before. Their choice will be confined to choosing between the many pretty wrappers in which the same standardised education will be packaged.
Frank Furedi is a professor in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent at Canterbury.