What Do Higher Education Consumers Want?

The Guardian yesterday published a set of truly worrying facts. Even though consumers of higher education pay almost three times as much in tuition fees than they did six years ago, the time they spend face-to-face with lectures in class has barely increased! According to research by the Higher Education Policy Institute, average ‘face time’ with ‘teachers’ has only risen from 13.7 to 13.9 hours per week! It is a matter of course that a representative of the National Union of Students would opine that higher education consumers “going on to campuses this year will feel like they’re paying more and will have increased expectations to match, but there is no evidence that shifting the financial burden to students gives them more power”! It is a matter of course that a representative of the National Union of Students would opine that higher education consumers “going on to campuses this year will feel like they’re paying more and will have increased expectations to match, but there is no evidence that shifting the financial burden to students gives them more power”! No wonder that the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute compares higher education consumers’ workload to a light part-time job! If I pay £9 instead of £3 for a burger, of course I expect a triple whopper with extra vegetables and sauce! If I pay £9 instead of £3 for a bottle of shampoo, I want super deluxe instead of Tesco Value! If I pay £9000 instead of £3000 for a degree certificate, of course I want maximum customer service!

And so it goes. Take a look at the reader comments at the Guardian website, and you will find that many or most pretty much match this point of view. The style in which The Guardian’s education correspondent wrote her piece, as much as the fact that it has been published, shows how deeply ingrained the new British common sense about higher education now is. As I have already argued in previous pieces, and as many other commentators have explained in much more detail, politicians’ and journalists’ relentless peddling of an instrumentalist, philistine, commercialist understanding of higher education over the past decade or two has created a dogma that is now very difficult to question at all. Even though The Guardian has recently allowed some space for critical debate, its higher education section for the most part reproduces this dogma with no questions asked.

The claims for more face time depart from an understanding of higher education as continuous with secondary education in terms of its objectives and the practices used to achieve these objectives. Lecturers are akin to teachers in terms of their duties, and higher education consumers are akin to secondary education consumers in terms of the customer service they expect. One might think that this is a misunderstanding, as reading for a degree is much more about the autonomous development of consumers’ analytical and critical faculties than basic education in secondary school. Hence face time in the classroom to some extent must give way to time spent at the library, engaging with the challenges of scholarly work on one’s own. However, it would be a misunderstanding to think that claims for more ‘face time’ are grounded in a misunderstanding. In the Britain of 2012, higher education is more and more synonymous with skills training and the acquisition of descriptive knowledge required for professional life. Analytical skills are only required when they fulfill certain professional functions, and ‘critical thinking’ has been commodified as a skill label one can put on one’s CV to attract prospective employers. Within the new stratification of the higher education system, lecturers are indeed more and more akin to teachers, except for those select few who are still able to develop as scholars and researchers in meaningful ways. For the purpose of vocational skills training, more time spent in the classroom is indeed very useful, and self-study only serves to review important bits of knowledge and memorise them more firmly. It is for the same reason that sales of academic books to higher education consumers are declining; why read the whole thing if your teacher can tell you the important bits and you can review the PowerPoint presentation after class? The face time issue therefore will not disappear, and a significant transformation of teaching and scholarship in British higher education seems very likely as a result.

Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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