The distorted vision of Dearing

August 10, 2007

Students are now customers, demanding satisfaction and skills. Whatever happened to learning, asks Frank Furedi

I remember very vividly when the Dearing report was published ten years ago. Until that point I had no special interest in developments in higher education. I assumed that universities would carry on more or less as before. In all essentials, my life as an academic would be guided by the ethos that I signed up to when I became a lecturer.

When I read the report I realised that academic life would change - and for the worse. The realisation that academic life was likely to be even more subordinated to a consumer and social engineering imperative provoked me to start thinking about this subject seriously. After talking to academic friends about the report I wrote my first article on the subject, which argued if the Dearing proposals were implemented it would accelerate the transformation of higher education into further education.

What provoked most controversy was Dearing's proposal to introduce student fees. However, a far more insidious dimension of the report was its formalisation of the tendency to separate teaching from research. Its most radical proposal was to institutionalise teacher training through the compulsory accreditation of lecturing staff. The pedagogic style promoted by Dearing attempts to transform university teaching into a technical skill that can be "quantified and assessed on the bases of predictable outcomes". The likely consequence is that teaching will become less the communication of subject-based knowledge than the imparting of skills.

Dearing's obsessions with skills and the standardisation of academic life have been internalised by universities. Some have even gone as far as to welcome the Government's proposed vocationally driven diplomas as suitable for entry to their institutions. Though, paradoxically, the shift from academic to vocational has failed to deliver Dearing's objective of a cohort of highly trained graduates wowing the job market.

Bureaucratic pressures to promote the skills agenda have led to everyone ticking the boxes next to "learning skills" but that is about all. Most of us can talk the talk of "critical thinking skills" and "communication skills" but we are not very good at "delivering" on the skills agenda.

Why? Because the instrumentalism of skills training exists in an uneasy relationship with the acquisition of academic knowledge. Moreover, it is not skills training but academic knowledge that turns young people into sound communicators and critical thinkers.

The main achievement of Dearing has been to transform the status of undergraduates from students to customers. Ten years ago, I did not expect to encounter undergraduates who would demand customer satisfaction from me on the grounds that they want their money's worth.

When Dearing introduced student fees, he ushered in an era where the customer and service provider model would gain significant influence over academic life. Consequently, the debate today is about whether all the money injected into universities has improved the "student experience" or the "university experience". Experience suggests that customers are rarely entirely satisfied. And the maintenance of academic standards is not always consistent with the task of keeping customers happy.

This has been a decade of frustration and disillusionment. But there are signs that many academics have realised that there is more to life than flattering students. Let's hope it will not take another decade before universities gain the courage required to find their voice.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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