Universities torn between two masters

September 14, 2007

Trying to serve students and society puts academe under unbearable strain, says Martin Mills.

Many academics will recognise the decade-long shift in academic culture lamented in Frank Furedi's memoriam to the Dearing report ( The Times Higher , August 10): the rise of the skills agenda, the student as customer, the growing culture of academic audit and the subtle transformation of higher into further education. Younger colleagues will be familiar with the resulting clash of cultures in endless exam board and teaching and learning meetings. Few academics have found these to be happy times, and Furedi rightly notes that the introduction of consumer capitalism to the dreaming spires has, for most, brought only "a decade of frustration and disillusionment".

However, Furedi's account of the post-Dearing years is unduly one-sided, buying into a vision of contemporary higher education that may be popular but is nonetheless inaccurate and self-defeating. The picture too often painted is one of an unambiguous cultural battle: a tax-secured old academic world suddenly opened up to the efficiency strictures of modern consumer capitalism, and shrivelling up like moss on the underside of a stone left in the sun. While we may understand the value of the old-style acquisition of academic knowledge over the skills agenda, such laments sound like distant bleating to those policy wonks who hear only the call of the economic.

The problem is not that the results of Dearing undermine the whole idea of an academic ethos (although they do) but that the demands that they place on universities are contradictory, ill-conceived and impossible to achieve. As a consequence, they are destroying university life by artifice rather than evolution. This became most clear to me in the late 1990s when I was co-opted on to one of the national advisory boards of the Quality Assurance Agency. During my time on the board, and more acutely in retrospect, it became clear how confused most people were as to what was being asked of the higher education sector by Dearing.

The problem is simple: despite the claims of our present Science Minister, it is far from obvious how economic demands apply to the necessary processes of academic life. For some parts of the Dearing report, the picture seemed clear enough: universities are the provider, the students are the customers, and degree programmes the product. There are of course many problems with this template, but I will not dwell on them here. The real problem lies in the way this "student-as-consumer" model has been conflated with an older model: the "business-as-customer" model. In this view, the university is the provider, but the customer is "business" (employers, external stakeholders, taxpayers, whatever). The product is the graduate.

These two models are fundamentally incompatible, but easily conflated. The degree to which they became confused in the policies of the QAA can be seen in the fact that, in determining whether a degree programme was "fit for purpose", learning outcomes were conceived in terms of what an average student should be able to do at the end. In the agency's earlier days, the skills of this mythical "average student" were discussed as the unbearably ugly designator, "graduateness", a unifying threshold that - it was earnestly hoped - would be easily understood by the business community.

This should not surprise us: the fundamental government agenda that education should support the economy as a whole (as opposed to the individual customer) remains paramount, regardless of what Dearing may have intended. In all these determinations, the notion of the student-as-customer was largely secondary to the demand that universities provide students-as-workers, except in the sense that, in both models, it was universities that were the providers, and therefore universities that were ultimately responsible.

The irony is that universities have therefore internalised a vision of "student-as- customer" far more consistently than their counterparts in government. The tragedy, however, lies in the unbearable demands that this contradiction places on universities. As Furedi himself notes, if students are customers, then "the maintenance of academic standards is not always consistent with the task of keeping customers happy". If, by contrast, "business" is the customer, then the quality of the "product" (the student) is what must be maintained. Academics consistently find themselves caught between these contradictory agendas - while seeking to champion the benefits of real academic learning - and most in the end find that the only sensible option is a retreat into cynicism and a departure into research.

Universities are often lambasted for their failure to engage with economic modernity. In my experience, however, the problem does not lie within universities, but within ill-conceived policies whose authors failed to think through the place that education has within economic life. It is not better academics that we require, but better leaders.

Martin A. Mills is a senior lecturer in religious studies at Aberdeen University.

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