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Bloody students

May 27, 2009

There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that students are increasingly thinking of themselves as consumers since the introduction of tuition fees. The BBC’s Today programme debated this last week and its website carries a report here.

examPA_468x336Apparently this new consumer consciousness has lead to such demands as more lectures, although as any university lecturer will tell you getting students to attend the classes already time-tabled is a gargantuan struggle.

Students may be asking more of their institutions and lecturers because they’re paying for their education now but it hasn’t made them more conscientious and dedicated learners. For instance, while invigilating exams last week, a senior colleague remarked on how many students turned up late to sit their papers. ‘They used to be knocking the doors down to get in a few years ago’, he told me. Another lecturer expressed surprise that the exam hall was half empty with 45 minutes to go on a three hour paper.

The causal approach of students to their education and assessment might exasperate and confuse their tutors but surely this was a predictable consequence of turning education into a commodity.

Anybody who has ever worked in retail will recognise what is simply the costumer’s prerogative. Once they have spent their money on a product then it’s really nobody’s business what they do with their purchase. Anybody who buys a new car is at liberty to leave it in their driveway and take the bus. Splashed out on a dress? It’s your right to take a pair of scissors to it and slash it to ribbons. Your groceries, bought and paid for? Let them rot in the larder.

Conversely when university fees were paid for by public money and students received a grant, educationalists could at least argue that students had a moral and civic responsibility to engage with their education. Students might always have had a pretty poor reputation as a lazy and dissolute lot, but arguably they were better students when they didn’t have to pay for their education.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Dunnagall permalink
    May 28, 2009 7:17 pm

    Interesting observation, Rab, but we must consider another possibility – that some students vote with their feet when they’ve realised they’ve signed up for a rubbish course, where teachers are unapproachable, feckless or simply incompetent. So it’s not always about students and their apparent consumerist mentality. Universities and academics need to take a look at themselves as well.

    I know one department where students can hardly be blamed for not showing up for lectures, seminars or exams when:

    1. Course content is based on a false prospectus – out of touch, out of date and taught by lecturers/tutors who don’t know the material.
    2. Lecturers/tutors shout at them and refuse to give them the time of day.
    3. Lecturers/tutors keep cancelling lectures/classes/appointments without notice or commitment to make up the lost time.
    4. Lecturers expect them to come to university fully formed intellectuals and professional writers and give them the harshest feedback when, guess what!!, they fall well below such unrealistic standards.
    5. The much vaunted technical resources are crap.

    So yes, Rab, maybe some students might decide not to consume what they buy after all but, for others, consuming rotten food or binning it is a damned sight better than going back to the dodgy supermarket where they bought it, and where the customer relations manager is always out or too incompetent to deal with them.

  2. Rab permalink*
    May 28, 2009 7:56 pm

    Couldn’t disagree more Dunnagall, not because there are no lousy departments and lecturers out there but because whinging about slack lecturers and lazy students diverts attention from the systematic undermining of higher education.

    Three things that would improve the situation (yes, three things because three is the magic number).

    1. abolish fees: they destroy the sense of education as a public good, its sense of civic responsibility and it distracts students from their studies by forcing them into debt and low paid work.
    2. reinstate the principle that education is of value in itself. It is not there to massage unemployment figures and it is not subservient to the economy.
    3. fuck managerialism: it’s bullying and bureaucratic dead-hand utterly undermines innovation and creativity, even as it produces a enormous paper trial of spurious statistics proving that things just keep getting better and better when every human indicator suggests the exact opposite. Also it encourages the sort of deceit you refer to in your points 1 and 5.

    Now imagine that I ruled the world and was allowed to implement these policies. It wouldn’t be utopia but most students at university would probably have at least a passing commitment to learning and those poxy lecturers and departments would be badly exposed; no excuses for not engaging with their students and no bullshit statistics to hid behind.

    To the barricades, comrade…

  3. Dr. Disco permalink
    June 1, 2009 1:09 pm

    I think it is worth considering not just the product and not just the consumers but the way it is sold. Our government is hell bent on getting everyone into university, whether one is suited or not. IS it expected now that anyone applying for a job, no matter what the shop is, should have a university degree. Many people, not having a clue what they should study, end up on an unsuitable course that has been mis-sold, as something that will give one necessary skills for the work place and make one desirable to employers. This is why we see disillusioned zoology graduates working in IT and media graduates in call centres. Since there are so many people now who feel that university is necessary and perhaps the only option, the answer for many is just to get the course out of the way and embrace the certificate at the end. If the government should get its way in introducing 2 year degrees, expect the lecture theatres to be empty.

  4. Rab permalink*
    June 1, 2009 6:24 pm

    Dr. D
    It’s a bit of a scam, isn’t it? But education has been commodified and therefore has to be ‘sold’. That is all part and parcel of the new entrepreneurial economy that universities find themselves in.

    But the great thing about students is that you can load them up with debt and they offer themselves for three years as a low paid work-force. All of which is great for the economy. So we can never have too many of the buggers.

    I’ve been doing a bit of reading into the lamentable condition of higher education and might post something on it soon.

  5. Dr. Disco permalink
    June 2, 2009 11:03 am

    Education should be modified, not commodified. Make it into something useful and worth having, rather than selling a lie. 3 years costs 9 grand. If you bought an iPOD for a hundred quid and it didn’t do what it said on the beautifully crafted plastic box, you would demand your money back. This is a commodity. So why can’t you get your money back for a shit degree that leaves you with nothing except a dodgy liver and a future in telesales?

  6. June 1, 2010 12:44 am

    In response to Dunnagall:

    1. Course content is based on a false prospectus – out of touch, out of date and taught by lecturers/tutors who don’t know the material.

    Well, maybe. But have you tried rewriting course content to make it more up-to-date? You have to prepare endless paperwork and sit on endlessly deferred course board meetings where it has to be approved by out-of-date and out-of-touch suits. Otherwise you can’t touch unit “descriptors”.

    2. Lecturers/tutors shout at them and refuse to give them the time of day.

    Because they are lazy, feckless wasters. Generally. (Actually, we give them too much time, I suspect – they probably need to stand on their own two feet more.)

    3. Lecturers/tutors keep cancelling lectures/classes/appointments without notice or commitment to make up the lost time.

    Not in my department. It really is the students who don’t turn up to lectures, classes and appointments.

    4. Lecturers expect them to come to university fully formed intellectuals and professional writers and give them the harshest feedback when, guess what!!, they fall well below such unrealistic standards.

    Well, I expect them to turn up to university [a] capable to expressing themselves competently in English (that’s something that school should actually provide), and [b] at least fairly interested to learn new things and be challenged. When they really can’t be bothered, yes, I give tough feedback. (Actually, it’s because I worry about them so much – spending £20k on an education and believing that in itself will see them through. I am keen to disabuse them of the lie.)

    5. The much vaunted technical resources are crap.

    No argument there.

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