Excitement no money can buy

June 16, 2006

If we spark students' idealism and curiosity, they may begin to see us as more than paid servants, says Frank Furedi

Major events such as the recent industrial action provide social scientists with insights into the world we inhabit. We learn a little bit more about who we are and where others stand in relation to us. A lot has been said about the attitudes of management, the Government and the union.

But the most interesting insights I gained have been about students. Some have been strong supporters of their teachers' action. Others have responded with a surprising degree of indifference. But, for me, the most disturbing dimension of the student response is the manner in which a growing section of them regard their interests as distinct from and even contradictory to those of their teachers and institution.

A recently appointed sociology lecturer told me she was shocked by the lack of respect that some of her undergraduates have displayed towards her role as an academic. "I am paying you" and "you are here to teach us" were some of the phrases used by her consumerist-minded students. She had the distinct impression of being treated as a servant by customers who were interested only in the service she provided for them. The attitude that conveys the idea that "we have paid for our degrees, so you give us our money's worth" informs the way that her students regard their relation to academics.

Many academics have received e-mails from students indicating that the demand for getting "my money's worth" is fairly widespread. Others have been confronted with comments that convey the impression that academics are selfish and greedy individuals who are reluctant to put in a good day's work. Of course, we all understand students' concern for their future. But it is difficult to know how to respond to comments that are informed by the assumption that this was a dispute in which the interests of students and staff were contradictory.

In such a case, you have to engage in a very basic discussion about what is the role of a university, of an academic and of a student. It is one thing to participate in a debate about the rights and wrongs of industrial action. It is quite another to have to explain that your role is not simply to be useful to your students.

In such circumstances, legitimate arguments that point to the need to defend integrity and long-term coherence of academic life may come across as an exercise in narrow professional self-pleading. Once academics have to demand respect for their status and authority, they are well on the way to losing it.

It looks like the recent industrial action will accelerate the consolidation of a consumerist consciousness among undergraduates. Whereas in the past the contractual dimension of the student-teacher relationship was fairly implicit, it now exercises a dominant influence over the proceedings.

There is little doubt that, even if industrial action had not occurred, the sense that academics and students have potentially contradictory interests would have become more pronounced.

We do a very good job of containing and undermining the powerful sense of idealism and intellectual excitement that many young people bring with them when they come to university. The challenge we face is to do what we can to encourage that excitement and idealism so that they feel that their experience is not reducible to the language of hard cash.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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