Producers, not consumers

Peter Geoghegan lauds an HEA-funded project that aims to correct the commodification of the academic experience

April 28, 2011

University life has been corporatised; professors have morphed into middle managers; academic disciplines have been replaced by a range of market-driven "client services". The impending academic Ice Age, depicted in Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein's The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (2006), is fast becoming a reality on both sides of the Atlantic.

This will not surprise anyone familiar with contemporary university life, but the alacrity with which the custodians of higher education in the UK have embraced these changes should.

As David Willetts, the universities and science minister, succinctly put it when speaking to Wessex Scene, the University of Southampton's student newspaper: "We are ultimately talking about students as consumers...When people are paying...£9,000 a year for this experience, they're bloody well going to be consumerist about it."

The marketisation of the UK academy is hardly a new phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher began the process, which John Major and then New Labour extended, but it has reached its apogee - or nadir - under the coalition and the jaundiced Browne Review.

Advocates of "the discipline of the market" offer it up as the panacea for all of higher education's ills. The model is simple: a producer (the university) provides a service to a consumer (the student), overseen by a light-touch regulator (the state). Those who provide the best service - judged by amorphous "student satisfaction" surveys and income earned after graduation - will thrive. Those that don't will perish.

If that produces a bonfire of the humanities and the least-popular former polytechnics, then so be it. The market, in its infinite wisdom, will have spoken. Meanwhile, exorbitant fees will force those universities that do survive to focus on teaching, or face the wrath of the all-powerful student-consumer.

Leaving aside the inconvenient truth that a perfect market in university education is basically an oxymoron, this renewed emphasis on teaching strikes an odd tone given the state's longstanding obsession with quantifiable research "outputs". As Simon Head has noted in The New York Review of Books, over the past 20 years UK universities have been treated "as if they were the research division of Great Britain Inc". During this time, research and teaching have come increasingly to be viewed as discrete activities, with a clear preference for the former.

Yet if students are consumers, simply buying a product labelled "an education" from a high-status provider, then research has little or no place beyond generating economically profitable new ideas and products. Why should the rational consumerist student care a jot about knowledge creation for its own sake if it won't add a zero or two on to their salary in five years' time?

A far more innovative approach is to view students not as passive consumers but as potential knowledge producers. This conception lies at the heart of Student as Producer, a Higher Education Academy-funded project that has seen research-engaged teaching adopted throughout the University of Lincoln.

Student as Producer - echoes with Walter Benjamin's famous 1934 essay "The Author as Producer" are intentional - aims to recombine research and teaching within the university. At Lincoln, undergraduate students work alongside staff in the design and delivery of their teaching and in the production of academic work. Bursaries of £1,000 are available for them to participate in fully fledged research projects during the summer, not as cheap intellectual labour but as co-creators of knowledge.

As Mike Neary, dean of teaching and learning at Lincoln and one of the driving forces behind the scheme, explains: "We are intellectualising the process of research and learning. It's about recovering the idea of the university."

Student as Producer does not treat research and teaching as antithetical, students as consumers or the university as a profit-driven degree factory. It demonstrates that creative, progressive solutions to the commodification of academic life are possible - just don't expect to find them in the marketplace.

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