We hear a lot about how the UK’s contractual and competitive higher education environment has catalysed the corporatisation of university governance structures. Institutions are scrutinised and audited in increasingly imaginative ways that dehumanise higher education, encouraging institutional leaders to prioritise student retention and financial efficiency over wider civic and societal needs.
However, an underdeveloped area of interest relates to how these changes impact students. Under the emergent narrative, undergraduates are represented as consumers, customers and even clients, paying more and more to receive a formal qualification. The media focus on events such as students suing their universities, while higher education journals increasingly focus on the “student-as-consumer approach”.
However, research we have undertaken with undergraduate geography students at Newcastle University shows that although the institutional landscape is changing, the expectations and experiences of students may not be. Their perspectives on student voice, engagement and representation make evident that not all students approach higher education as a means to an end. The wider transformations have not rendered them impersonal “end users”.
Critical to this research has been capturing how students perceive their place within higher education and how the changing institutional context disrupts this. Counter to the consumerised understandings of students, the social, communal and personal elements of university life featured most prominently in discussions. As opposed to pursuing a purely transactional degree, they desire to develop mutually rewarding ties with the people and places they interact with and to be part of dynamic academic communities, in which relationships extend beyond formal teaching settings.
They also complain that overwhelming class sizes, insufficient contact hours and the increasing move to online and virtual teaching prevents the building of even fleeting relationships with peers and staff. Moreover, the anonymity and isolation imposed by large lecture theatres leads to an unwillingness to attend smaller group activities, further isolating students and affecting their ability to engage in learning and to feel part of a community. What we had initially perceived to be student disengagement was consistently reported as fear.
Far from being ruthless and rational economic agents, students require confidence-building support to improve their social and emotional well-being and to help them build long-term, dialogical interactions with teaching staff, wherein communication is both natural and ongoing.
Students reported, however, that visible pressures on staff dissuaded them from seeking their support and building more interpersonal relationships with them. The increasing and well-documented pressures that higher education institutions exert on staff impacts negatively on their well-being and productivity, but also on the wider learning environment and on relations with students.
There is no doubt that higher education is changing, but the notion that undergraduate students are now dispassionate consumers requires far greater critical reflection. This is not to imply that students are immune from processes of consumerisation. Each student we spoke with was acutely aware of the cost of their degree. However, they appeared to place most value on the things that money can’t buy – purpose, meaning and friendship.
Universities must ensure that as the institutional landscape changes around them, the core foundations of learning, teaching and engagement are protected. A fully automated, economised and consumerised university risks depriving students of the key experiences they require in preparation for confronting this tumultuous world.
Put simply, students are still paying for an education, not just a degree.
Liam Keenan and Maddy Thompson are teaching fellows in the department of geography at Newcastle University.
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