The widening access agenda panders to the idea that students are customers and undermines the whole point of higher education, argues Frank Furedi.
When I ask a small group of recently appointed university lecturers what has been the most unexpected feature of their experience, they reply in different ways that it is the attitude of students.
A 34-year-old politics lecturer is surprised by the lack of respect she is accorded by her undergraduates. "They use my office as a drop-in centre, and when I ask them to come back during my office hours they give me a blank look," she observes. A 29-year-old sociology teacher feels that his "students seem to believe that my job is to service their needs 24 hours a day. They find it perplexing that I have to devote time to administration and research." A 30-year-old computer-science lecturer believes that students expect her to make "life easy for them" rather than to teach them.
These academics can't put a finger on it, but they are sure that something has changed in the relationship between staff and students since their days at university.
And they are right. There has been a change in the conduct of the basic relationship between academic and undergraduate. It is not so much that the new generation of undergraduates is uniquely disrespectful or flippant towards education. Arguably, since they have to make a serious financial commitment to their education, they take a degree more seriously than their predecessors did. But they do so not as students but as consumers of a product offered by a service provider.
The clearest expression of the changing relationship between academics and students is the contradictory attitudes that the two parties have towards research. At open days, many university departments boast about their high research rating to the assembled cohort of potential recruits and their parents. They use the occasion to inform the audience that their teaching is research-led and that students are taught by internationally renowned scholars. Some are impressed by the prospect of joining a department that is at the cutting edge of their discipline. But many students and most of the parents are indifferent to the research culture of their prospective university. They are interested in the services that the department provides to students and the value of the degree.
The dynamic set in place at open days helps to create a customer-oriented culture where the relationship between most potential students and most universities is that of buyer and seller. With the exception of a relatively small number of privileged universities and departments, we live in a buyer's market. Not quite a market, because the expansion of higher education has not been simply a response to demand but the outcome of a conscious policy of social engineering led by the government. This policy of widening access alongside the expansion of higher education has helped to establish an environment where many universities are forced to compete to recruit students.
But why should this be a problem? Why should competition not contribute towards creating a climate where universities become more creative and innovative? Competition in science, research and innovation helps advance a society's intellectual and cultural development. But competition for students helps to unleash a process that fundamentally diminishes the quality of an undergraduate education. Undergraduates who are courted by competing universities develop a different relationship to their teachers from those who had to fight to get in.
What students gain from their experience at university is in part influenced by the manner in which they have entered higher education. In previous times, potential students often had to struggle to get into a university. Gaining a place was regarded as a privilege that required considerable effort and energy. In such an environment, students had to compete and stretch themselves to demonstrate their worth to their future university. Today, this process has been reversed. It is not the student but the university that has to prove itself to potential customers. It may not be the case at Oxford University, but many school-leavers know that there is a university place waiting for them if they want it.
When gaining a place in a university is regarded as routine and as requiring only normal effort, the attitude of the future generation of undergraduates alters. The creative tension and the challenge of meeting the demanding expectations of a university help produce students with an orientation towards studying that is different from the "you are here to service me" mind-set that often prevails on campuses today. Individuals who have not been challenged to prove themselves worthy of universities are unlikely to embrace the intellectual ethos and idealism usually associated with the experience of higher education. Instead, they will adopt the functional and instrumental values that prevail in the market.
Sadly, the government and its task force on widening access to universities are oblivious to how their policy is transforming undergraduates' outlooks.
Their aim is to devise gimmicks to allow them to cast the net wider. A growing sense of intellectual complacency is the inexorable outcome of the replacement of the teacher-student relationship with the model of the service provider and customer.
Unfortunately, this model goes against the fundamental premise of an academic education. From the standpoint of service providers, the customer is always right. It is not their job to question or criticise the tastes and values of potential customers. By contrast, academics are often in the business of educating their students' tastes and encouraging them to question their values. Indeed, one of the most distinct and significant dimensions of academic and intellectual activity is that it does not often give customers what they want. Academic pedagogy does not provide the customer with a clearly defined product. It does not seek to peddle what the customer wants but attempts to provide what the student needs. That is why forcing universities to prove themselves to their customers fundamentally contradicts the ethos of academic education.
Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at Kent University. His Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Anxious Age is published by Routledge, £14.99.