Expert cautions about the damage of commercial ethic in teaching

Paul Standish of the IoE warns learning is being viewed as a consumer product, writes John Gill

October 16, 2008

A "pervasive commercial ethic" has infiltrated the university sector and is damaging teaching and learning, an expert has warned.

Paul Standish, professor of philosophy at the Institute of Education, said that students were being encouraged to view a university education as a "consumer product", which risked undermining the very purpose of higher education.

He told Times Higher Education: "One thing that is happening is that simplistic models of teaching and learning and curriculum planning have come to dominate, which can crowd out other ways in which teachers have typically operated, and in which the best teachers still continue to operate.

"This model whereby there must be clarity of outcome tends to have the effect of altering the way teaching takes place and ... the kind of content that is selected in the first place. Hence, it is the mode of assessment that works its influence back through the system."

Speaking after leading a seminar that examined the nature and purposes of higher education, Professor Standish, who is head of philosophy in the IoE's department of educational foundations and policy studies, said the consequences of "gearing everything almost mechanistically towards producing learning outcomes efficiently" were severe.

"In the end, it undermines not only higher education but the public world as a whole, because we need people who can think and act dynamically - in business and commerce as much as anywhere else.

"I think industry knows that, but it doesn't know how to convert it into a demand from higher education, so when it tries to formulate what it needs from higher education it tends to resort to a vocabulary of skills and competencies, which doesn't capture what I am trying to describe," he said.

Professor Standish said "excessive" demands for transparency were a particular affliction in higher education, and he suggested that universities "should resist accounting for themselves too much in the public domain".

He said: "I think the ways in which accountability is asked for are very crude at present. They provide a kind of pseudo-accountability and an excessive concern with transparency that does justice neither to what proper accountability should be nor to the functioning of the university."

Arguing against the now common premise that all involved in higher education should know what they are getting for their money, Professor Standish said: "I think there is a fallacy there, because in education, in higher education in particular, very often you don't know what it is that you are engaged in until you've had some of it."

He added: "Some of the most important things that happen in higher education institutions cannot be simply expressed in this way. So to expect this complete transparency is to misunderstand both what it is to be a human being and what the institution of higher education must be like."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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