Why understanding can’t be bought or sold

A blog by Les Back on Sociology and the Cuts argues that it is wrong to blame consumerist students for the way that educational value is now being measured, and suggests that academics may need to look again at the way they teach.

“I need to get the most out of this because I am paying for it,” I overheard a first year say to her friend as she dashed to an induction meeting in September. The marketisation of the university has turned campuses into places of commerce and competition. As we all know, the increase of student fees is accelerating that process as well as dividing and ranking the sector. Lecturers fear that students will become increasingly demanding and insistent in exercising their rights as consumers.  The National Student Survey (NSS) will be the mechanism through which the government and HEFC will adduce satisfaction of students.  While I share many of the reservations about the adequacy of the NSS to measure educational value, blaming the consumerism of students for our current situation is tactically wrong.

One of the damaging effects of the prioritisation of research within the auditing of ‘excellence’ in universities was the devaluing of teaching. I think we have to open up a critical conversation with students about what the changes in higher education is doing to them as well as to the profession.   “The more it costs, the less it’s worth,” students shouted in protest to the introduction of fees and indebtedness. The reduction of education to a thing that can be bought and sold corrodes the value of what we do in the classroom.

A thought can’t be purchased, neither can a leap of imagination be bought or a link between a private trouble and a public issue. The idea that education promises a straightforward return on a financial outlay cheapens what is precious about it. It is entirely logical that students should start to see themselves as paying customers. I think it is incumbent on staff to make their teaching worth the price it has cost. Nevertheless, thinking and intellectual growth cannot be purchased ‘off the peg’….

The full blog can be read at Sociology and the Cuts

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