Market values dominate sector

Report says new universities are constrained by the priorities of business, writes Melanie Newman

July 2, 2009

The role of universities in turning undergraduates into critical thinkers is being undermined by marketisation, academics have warned.

Intellectual development is still a priority of the elite universities, says the paper in the journal Teaching in Higher Education.

However, new universities' links to business via vocational courses and industry placements make them more likely to frame pedagogy purely in business terms, it adds.

Rather than transforming their students into critical scholars, these institutions are simply producing "a more confident and content mass who remain a willing workforce".

"Parts of British higher education are pedagogically constrained by the marketisation that has accompanied its expansion," say Mike Molesworth, Elizabeth Nixon and Richard Scullion, the authors of the report and members of Bournemouth University's Media School.

Although the sector should critically reflect on the market economy beyond campus, the paper suggests that "the emerging role" of some institutions is to "fix in students an unquestioning acceptance of the primacy of consumer desires".

The authors criticise the emphasis some universities place on industry placements, which they say confirms the view of a degree as a means to a job.

They also point out that institutions offering vocational courses as a route into some industries are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.

"Students tend to reject deep reflection on vocational subjects, especially those rooted in consumer culture, such as public relations, marketing or advertising ... A student committed to such work ... may experience unpleasant dissonance where education facilitates critical reflection on consumer culture.

"Having obtained money from consumer students on the basis of a desire for an attractive job, a curriculum must not undermine the 'done deal'."

The authors argue that institutions that treat specialist knowledge as a commodity risk undermining themselves in a world in which knowledge is shared more openly. Critiquing facts is more important than acquiring them, the academics say.

"If the value of facts is reduced and complex learning is unattractive, what is left to be sold is the passport of the degree certificate," the paper adds.

"Marketised education is not even an effective preparation for the workplace because it may not provide the imaginative and critical graduates who are able to deal with technological and societal change, let alone instigate changes themselves."

Higher education's commodification is being driven from the top, the authors say, pointing to Bournemouth's "Get a better job, get a masters" campaign as an example. Students themselves are playing ball, arriving at university with the desire for a 2:1 "framed primarily by its subsequent bargaining power in the job market", they add.

The paper, "Having, being and higher education: the marketisation of the university and the transformation of the student into consumer", says: "Tutors must critically reflect on their role in maintaining education as personal transformation."

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