There's no added value in sales talk

December 14, 2007

'Student-centred' policies that see academic study as a mere commercial contract cheat both pupil and scholar, says Frank Furedi. Higher education managers and policymakers habitually use a student- centred rhetoric to promote a thoroughgoing cultural transformation of British universities. The objective of placing "students at the centre of what universities are trying to do" is one of the main justifications for the Higher Education Funding Council for England's demand that academics will have to "develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties". The same logic motivates last month's policy statement from the 1994 Group of universities, which promises to "promote and respond to the student voice" and assigns to students the role of "change agents". The "student experience" is wielded as an ideological weapon with which conventional academic practices are to be undermined and transformed.

The principal target of the promotion of a student-led cultural transformation of university life is professional autonomy and judgment. Hefce's demand that staff reorient their loyalty to their institution is explicit on this point. The exercise of professional judgment is underpinned by values and practices integral to an academic's discipline. A shift of loyalty to the strategic demands of an institution exposes academic activity to economic and political pressures that are likely to distract lecturers from working in accordance with their discipline-based ethos. The call for the subordination of this ethos to a business model is justified on the ground that academics need to get real and understand that they have to relate to their students as discerning customers.

The discovery of the "marketplace" is celebrated in caricatured form by the 1994 Group. It regards the marketplace as the principal driver of academic life since it "naturally affects the choices students make when they embark on their university life and their expectations of what they should receive". It also contends that commercial concerns now shape student identity because we live in a "marketplace in which all students are increasingly being viewed, and viewing themselves, as consumers".

What this report does not acknowledge is that no one surpasses the cultivation of this consumerist identity more than policymakers and higher education bodies such as Hefce and the 1994 Group.

The conceptualisation of students as "change agents" betrays the institutional imperatives behind the campaign to transform university life. They are conceptualised as the means to achieve managerial objectives rather than as the end of a programme of reform. In practice, the championing of the cause of the student as customer leads to the institutionalisation of managerial practices that will inexorably diminish the quality of academic life.

The equation of the student experience with an act of consumption has serious implications for academic life. The most important casualty of the promotion of this consumer-dictated model is the fundamental relationship between academics and their students. The model implicitly demands the transformation of the relationship between scholar and student to that of a provider of knowledge and skills and customer.

The relationship between customer and service provider ceases to be one negotiated around the demands of an academic discipline. Such a relationship ceases to be informal and open-ended. Instead it becomes formal and assumes the character of a transaction that is ultimately enforced by a contract. What is so stimulating about the interaction of academics and their students is that it is founded on a relationship between people prepared to test out their ideas, subject them to critical scrutiny and engage in an open-ended debate.

It is at its best a transformative relationship - and one that has the potential to head off in unexpected directions. No one buys or sells a service, but everyone can learn and develop through it.

Perversely, the proposal to treat undergraduates as consumers will lead to a situation where lecturers will not be able to exercise their professional judgment in a way that benefits an individual student. Why? Because the demands of a contractual relationship force teachers to adopt a formulaic style of teaching that treats everyone the same.

The formalisation of the student-teacher relationship fosters a disregard for the individual. It limits the room available for flexible and spontaneous interaction. As in the case of all formal transactions, the contract mediates the relationship between teacher and student. As service providers, academics are unlikely to deviate from the contract in order to do what they think is right for the individual student.

The formalisation of the student-teacher relationship into a transaction creates the potential for a permanent, silent conflict of interest between two parties that have every reason to act in a calculating way towards one another. The 1994 Group's policy statement implicitly recognises this problem and hopes that "more can be achieved in partnership than in conflict". But the very idea of students as "change agents" is founded on the idea of waging conflict against the "old ways". That's one reason why it is a very bad idea.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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