Consumer vulture culture

January 24, 1997

I would like to say how much I agree with Andrew Marks's observations and critique of the current situation in higher education (THES, January 17).

I am 32 and have been a full-time lecturer for nearly six years. My experience of teaching so far has not been as satisfying as I once thought it would be. Since students have become consumers, and lecturers have become producers, the soul of learning has, I think, quietly ebbed away. Apart from a significant minority of committed individuals (usually, as Mr Marks points out, mature students), every new wave of students carries with it a majority whose lack of curiosity, intellectual diligence, and ability to find value in what they are undertaking, beyond its being a means to a financial end, is astounding.

I must say that I have a great deal of sympathy for some of them; first, because they are deprived of the fuller experience and satisfactions enjoyed by the generation preceding them, and second, because universities are still actively contributing to the erosion of their belief in anything beyond the most grudging and mercenary of motives for being educated.

A few more thoughtful students are, I have noticed, becoming impatient. They resent constant university demands for "feedback", where they are required to assess the value of the product they are "buying". At least twice yearly, on every module, our students, for example, are asked to fill in forms which grade their lecturers' "product" and performance on a scale of one to ten, and asked to say what was wrong with their course, as well as what was satisfactory.

They point out that the message we are sending them is that we are not confident about our product, and that as consumers - instinctively endowed with the ability to know the value, as well as the price, of what we are selling - they know better than we do what, and how, they are supposed to be taught.

They are quite capable of seeing the problem with this. Lecturers have been trained, for many years, at great expense, to research our subjects, pass on what we have learnt, and encourage others to research and think for themselves. If being a consumer is already education enough, why come to university at all? The universities should allow students to value and have confidence in their lecturers as intellectuals and professionals rather than as salesmen and women competing for attention in the marketplace. Perhaps that would help students to see the worth in improving their own efforts and abilities, and encourage them to have a respect for work which has no immediate exchange value, whether it is "feedback", marks or money. This is not naive idealism, it is essential to the life of academia, to the morale of staff, and to the future of the people who come to university to study.

I would like to suggest to the THES that you run a questionnaire asking for people's opinions of the attitudes and ethics which underpin teaching and learning in higher education today. There needs to be a forum for these issues to be discussed. Many of us would like to know how other lecturers define their roles, what beliefs and aspirations sustain them in their activities, and whether they perceive these to have changed, or to be changing, irrevocably.

Stella Swain Lecturer in English, University of the West of England, Bristol

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