Consumer self-interest

An Oxford survey into attitudes to marketisation offers food for thought on our intellectual future, says Teresa Morgan

December 6, 2012

The first term in which a new generation of undergraduates will pay - prospectively - up to £9,000 a year for university courses is drawing to a close. Is this the tipping point in the marketisation of higher education?

A recent project at the University of Oxford set out to investigate how attitudes to higher education within one university are changing and whether they are becoming significantly marketised.

The project, which involved staff and students at every level, included an online survey. It asked what the university is for in principle, what it achieves in practice, what people think they are doing when they study, teach or support learning, and who benefits from their activities. Respondents were offered a range of answers - functionalist, idealist, ethical, emotional - including some couched in the language of the market.

A total of 1,236 people responded (around 4 per cent of all students and staff). Of these, 76 per cent of undergraduates, 61 per cent of postgraduates and 45 per cent of academics agree that they are "consumers of education". Is marketisation, then, a fait accompli?

Not quite: other "market" options have less appeal. Only 48 per cent of respondents agree that they are investors in education and 22 per cent that it is a consumer good, while of those who teach, only 2 per cent agree that they are service providers.

Although calling students, and even academics, consumers of education may be fashionable, it seems that marketised thinking has not penetrated Oxford very deeply.

But this is not the whole story. When the responses of those who describe themselves as consumers are compared with the responses of those who do not, the consumers deviate markedly from the average.

The self-identified consumers are the group most likely to agree with functionalist statements, such as that Oxford exists to train elites, grow the economy or contribute to industry. They are strongly individualistic, more likely than others to have come to Oxford to do something they want for themselves - increase their earning power, gain an advantage over their competitors and meet people who will be useful in their careers. They have a strong sense of entitlement, tending to agree that university education is a right and that universities exist to help people achieve the careers they want or deserve.

The consumers who teach are more likely than others to see their work as selling goods or services, preparing people for the job market and helping students make useful contacts.

Members of the group are less likely to be looking for the good life, truth, wisdom, virtue or beauty, to be doing something they love, or to see themselves as being formed by education. They are much less likely to see themselves as doing something for society or something society needs them to do. They are less likely to see university education as a privilege, a pleasure, or a social, moral or personal good.

Does this matter? In some ways, the profile of consumers is an attractive one. They communicate a keen zest for life and a robust sense of self-worth and entitlement. They like to enjoy themselves while keeping an eye to their advantage. They are sociable, committed networkers, and determined to maximise their opportunities. If societies are best served by their members pursuing their individual self-interest, then maybe these are just the kind of people we need.

But one might wonder, or worry, about the absence of a sense of social responsibility. One might regret the lack of interest expressed in truth, or in intellectual and cultural activities for their own sake.

This raises a further question: are consumers of education, as sketched above, a package deal, as it were, or can they be "customised" to adopt other social or intellectual values? If they can, what values might individual teachers or institutions want to discuss with them? Very few respondents to the survey wanted to take that question on - but I think we must. It is important for both students and society that students reflect on the value of what they learn in the broadest terms.

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