Peddling in a buyers' market

October 22, 1999

Attracting students onto courses is akin to being a dodgy salesman, says Frank Furedi

"I feel like a double-glazing sales lady," said a colleague from a new London university. She had spent three days trying to coax potential students onto a degree course offered by her department. "We still have to get six more bodies to meet our quota," she sighed.

Perhaps we have all become academic pedlars flogging redesigned courses in a buyers' educational marketplace. University flyers now imitate holiday brochures, enthusing about superb accommodation, state-of-the-art sports facilities and the exciting nightlife that awaits students.

On open days, academics compete with one another to assure customers that their courses are less demanding than those of competing establishments. Anxious parents are informed not to worry too much about exams, since we offer other, less stressful, forms of assessment. Once students arrive on campus, we try unimaginatively to bribe them by attempting to make sure our courses are accessible and relevant, which often means making inaccessible lectures "relevant" by handing out lecture notes.

There is considerable pressure on academics to put on their customer services hat and do their best not to put students off. Examination conventions are continually massaged into line with a market-oriented examination system. It looks bad when too many students achieve poor results. So when lecturers are warned too many students are failing, the obvious response is to modify the marking system to make failing more difficult.

Lecturers are also encouraged to adopt a more student-friendly style of pedagogy. To do otherwise is to risk facing an empty classroom. From the marketing perspective, examinations are dismissed as unimaginative and old fashioned.

Any form of academic rigour is represented as dysfunctional. What used to be called placing students under pressure is increasingly defined as inappropriate and sometimes castigated as academic bullying.

Is a student-centred university providing a better product for its customers? No, it is not. The marketisation of higher education is forcing universities to be driven by concerns that have little pedagogic value. The new ethos has important implications, since teaching without pressure implies the suspension of an intellectual engagement between teacher and pupil. Whether we like it or not, good teaching requires the application of pressure. Sometimes it even means making students feel uncomfortable and stressed.

At worst, lecturers who want an easy life will be incited to flatter their customers, not challenge them. A friend was horrified when her daughter reported that at her red-brick university, students ran many of their seminars. Her daughter was also bemused to discover that the role of the lecturer was to sit with folded arms while students ran the seminar.

Sadly, the imperative of winning customers threatens to diminish the quality of higher education. An obsessive focus on pleasing students distracts from the task of providing high-quality education. Higher education is one area where the customer does not know best. Young people need to be stretched and tested. Student success depends on the ability of teachers to inspire them to develop their initiative.

There is little doubt that competition for student numbers has improved the quality of catering and extra-curricular facilities in many universities. But these gains are far outweighed by the relative decline of investment in library and research facilities and the reduction of teacher-student contact time.

The new culture of consumerism threatens to undermine the confidence of lecturers to do what they think students need, in case it is deemed unpopular.

Frank Furedi is reader in sociology, Darwin College, the University of Kent at Canterbury.

Are lecturers lowering marking standards to stay in students' good books?

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