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More anecdotal evidence of the pernicious influence of student fees.

February 18, 2011

A short but sobering post after a bruising Friday in the bear-pit of academia.

In a seminar at the start of the week I was encouraging undergraduate students to be more forthcoming with their ideas, opinions and findings. I explained to them that they are part of an academic community and that as such their contribution is important and valued. I highlighted how I’d incorporated research carried out by dissertation students into my own teaching. I explained that some of the ideas raised on the module were not actually the result of my own genius but had emerged in conversation with students like them. In short, I was ‘bigging them up’; trying to instill a little confidence in them, when one student asked in a jovial but pointed fashion: ‘Why should we contribute anything? We’re paying for you to teach us? Did any of them other students whose ideas you ripped off see a penny for them?’

Well, what do we expect if we’re going to commodify knowledge?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 8:37 pm

    Sadly, you see the worst of both worlds in that comment. There’s the marketisation side of things, yes. Sad enough. But there’s also the side that shows students who believe getting the degree is what counts.

    “Why should we contribute anything?” – Because you’re going the extra mile and people notice that kind of thing. Because some big and important contributions can follow you around and boost your position more than a degree award. Because the more you engage, the more you discover. Because you perversely get more value from the money you’re paying for this education. Because almost every possible reason I can give should benefit you more than if you didn’t contribute.

    When pre-university education contains a lot of box ticking and ‘right’ answers, it’s no surprise that people enter university expecting to be taught the right answers.

    If you’re not yet aware of purpos/ed yet, check it out:

    Purpos/ed is about opening up the purpose of education. I like projects like that. It’s set up by Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw) and Andy Stewart (@andystew), who you should also follow on Twitter if you don’t already.

    • Rab permalink*
      February 18, 2011 11:00 pm

      Hi Martin,
      I should stress the student in question was, to some extent, being deliberately provocative to make a point; one which I respect. How can universities charge fees and still maintain the integrity of the idea of an academic community? Turning knowledge into a commodity is utterly corrosive.

      Purpos/ed looks interesting and timely. I shall have a look at it tomorrow. Cheers for that. I’ll check out Doug Belshaw and Andy Stewart also.

      • February 19, 2011 10:22 pm

        The student uncovers an uncomfortable reality right now. While deliberately provocative, it nevertheless highlights an attitude that will become more commonplace with the increased marketisation of higher education.

        Rather than a set of tools, experiences and opportunities, HE is regularly seen as a means to an end. Not only a bad representation of HE, but also a recipe for losing out on the specific end result now expected by so many.

        Another resource that’s timely and well worth checking out for this very reason is ‘Student as Producer’. Check out some of the writing at:

        And one book I keep recommending to everyone now I’ve read it from cover to cover: The Marketisation of Higher Education – The Student as Consumer

        Right, sorry, I’ll stop suggesting stuff now. 🙂

  2. February 18, 2011 9:44 pm

    This story has made me very happy for reasons I don’t really know.

    • Rab permalink*
      February 18, 2011 11:03 pm

      Happy? Actually, I think I know what you mean. As I said in my reply to Martin, above, the student was (I think) being deliberatively provocative – holding up a mirror in which HE can regard its rank reflection.

  3. backwatersman permalink
    February 19, 2011 7:29 pm

    This is actually very much the attitude you used to get in public schools (and probably still do). We used to have some very idealistic English teachers – almost all from Northern working class backgrounds – who thought that their job was to introduce their pupils to the joys of English literature. Most of their pupils took the attitude that their parents were paying for their children to get good exam results, and so it was the job of the teachers to give them what they needed to do so, without too much effort on their own behalf.

    Not encouraging to see the same thing being extended to Universities. I can’t pretend to be a Marxist, but I think you’re quite right about the commodification of knowledge.

  4. Rab permalink*
    February 20, 2011 9:09 am

    Hi Martin,
    Your suggestions are always interesting and useful. I like the material you draw attention to on twitter also.

    Hello Backwatersman,
    I do pretend to be a Marxist from time to time, when it suits me or the occasion seems to call for it 😮

    I heard a VC describe university like a health farm recently. You can pay to go there but if you don’t follow the regime then it’s your fault if you don’t get fit.

  5. Charlieman permalink
    February 20, 2011 2:12 pm

    Fee charging for education doesn’t commodify knowledge but does commodify teaching. If I need to learn a new subject, I can go on a course (£££) or read some books (£). And I may choose the ostensibly more expensive option because good teachers are worth it. Thus I pay for the teaching, not the knowledge.

    On the whole, of course, I share your concern that students believe university admission and subsequent fee payment guarantees a degree in the manner of an intensive driving school that “guarantees” a licence after 14 days tuition.

    However fee charging is not something new in UK HE. Overseas students have always been charged, with exceptions for the brightest on bursaries and fellowships. Universities have been selling teaching for a long time, and given historic popularity with overseas students, they were delivering an education that was worth the price. If UK students feel that HE isn’t worth the money, it is probably because they are being sold the wrong thing.

  6. February 20, 2011 3:20 pm

    Hi Charlieman,
    I’m not sure students are paying just for the teaching. Wouldn’t you agree that teaching and knowledge are inseparable? If teaching is the form, knowledge is the content. Of course knowledge could come in different forms, such as books, but nobody just buys a book without regard for its content. (This has all gone a bit Yoda, hasn’t it?)

  7. February 28, 2011 2:12 pm

    Comrade Rab – this is why I have long abandoned the traditional seminar format of open discussion and debate. It simply doesn’t work because even those very few students who are willing to contribute in an informed and intelligent way usually give up by the fourth week of sullen shoe-gazing from the “silent majority” of the class. I’ve also abandoned the seminar presentation format after one too many half-baked efforts void of intelligent thought or insight. It’s just too painful for all involved and not very productive, which is a pity when now and again a student will produce something really worthwhile.

    That’s why now I have structured classes based on individual tasks and group discussion, which puts the focus on the students to do something and not depend on me to give them a mini-lecture. It’s not the most inspiring method but, in the absence of any alternative to the seminar per se, it does produce at least some interaction and discussion. And, yes, it probably buys into the secondary school mentality of the majority of students and even encourages the consumerist ideology that has infected higher education throughout the UK and Ireland.

    But it saves teacher and student alike 50 minutes of nothing.

    • Rab permalink*
      March 2, 2011 8:27 am

      Sage advice, AA. But have you considered going into a seminar armed? I don’t mean armed with knowledge, wit and discussion sheets. I mean ARMED! Studies show that people at the wrong end of a gun want to talk. In fact getting them to shut up is the problem. Maybe what we need is a lecturing militia. Viva la education!

  8. March 10, 2011 2:22 pm

    I just came upon this with a disaffected student who has started not turning up or contributing.

    His comment (roughly) at the end of one workshop session (online journalism Year 2 group work project) was: “I haven’t done anything at all in three hours – you’re not teaching us anything. Why am I paying £3,000 a year to come to university to teach myself?”

    Well – actually that’s what university is once you get about halfway through. Higher education is about teaching yourself – with mentoring and guidance. I may be flawed as a mentor and guide – but you can’t guide students who don’t produce any work.

    I take AA’s point about structured classes – but by semester 4 (halfway through the course), our units are pitched as group project editorial meetings, with the onus on students to produce their own work. And why should we have to treat undergraduates as secondary school students? For heaven’s sake – this is why the massive expansion of university education was so ill-thought-through…

    • March 10, 2011 6:01 pm

      Good to hear from you Freelance.

      I’m also getting a lot more of the what-am-I-paying-for? attitude. I’m going to start acting dumb and just ask ‘I don’t know, what are you paying for?’

      I’d genuinely like to know though what many of my students think they are paying for? What do they actually think a higher education is?

      Maybe we should set it as an essay.

  9. Philip Watson permalink
    March 18, 2011 10:05 pm

    I think that this attitude of education being a matter of the teacher teaching, rather than of the learner learning, is developed much earlier than FE. I’ve found it rampant among year 9 pupils in secondary school, some of whom seem to believe that it absolves them from all requirement for effort. Very many appear to be shocked, perhaps even grossly offended, when they are advised that they are in error.
    As for the requirements of industry (where I worked for twenty-five years before I became a teacher), I would summarise these from my own experience, as being mainly for fully literate and numerate recruits, with not only a willingness to learn, but also the realisation that a good deal of hard work will be necessary before they are halfway to being useful employees; and a very great deal more before they are worth the salary and position to which they aspire.

    • Rab permalink*
      March 19, 2011 9:05 am

      Welcome Philip,
      The sort of passivity you refer to is something I’m familiar with. It reduces education to something that is done to students rather than something they participate in.

      It’s strange to see the reaction of students in higher education, who upon learning that they have 9 hours of classes each week, assume that the rest of the time is time-off. The idea of independent learning is just alien to many. They can only conceive of learning as something confined to the classroom. Education and learning is something they anticipate only when someone is telling them stuff that they need to remember and regurgitate and apposite moments.

      I’ve started to use my seminars as occasions to discuss the process of learning and education with students. It doesn’t matter what the topic should be, I just find that the time is better spent trying to get them to think about how they learn rather than have me spoon-feed them for another hour with information they will struggle to recall once for an exam and then jettison immediately after.

      It’s easy to get frustrated with students but isn’t it incumbent upon us to ask what it is about their social and cultural environment that encourages such passivity?

  10. Humboldt permalink
    April 15, 2011 3:19 pm

    I happen to be one of those students who ‘gave up’ in seminars. I came to University all bright-eyed and with a hirstute rump eager to give six of the best to an emergent intelligentsia. In reality, I sit in the room whilst everyone looks at the floor and then answer the question, or make the point, or in some way engage every single time before the acute embarrassment of no-one saying anything gets to me. Now I can’t be arsed and seldom bother to do the set reading – no-one else does, and I can bluff that I read the article on the formation of the French proletariat far better than your average joe through a combination of semantic trickery and general knowledge or assumptions. The consensus is ‘Learn that which you have to for exams or essays, discount all else’.

    Some seminar tutors get around this by being vicious, authoritarian and acerbic, which might not be very nice or particularaly libertarian but appears to fucking work. Far more just turn off, hand out a few sheets and talk to themselves – with exaggerated pauses every so often so as to give the impression they think students might speak up. Some just appear capable of motivating people; and I think this is genuinely caused by simple making the debate more intellectual and more challenging; or much more controversial. Coax out the ideologues and set them at loggerheads if you can’t have an honest and open debate.

    How does this relate to political climate? Students are canny. Most understand education is truly about jumping through enough arbitary hoops to get a sufficient piece of paper to hopefully buy shiny things. All else is superfluous in the final analysis. The sense of entitlement prevalent in the Middle-Class feeds into this attitude, whereas I feel those from prolerier than thou backgrounds tend to care more about learning. Then again, I might just be a bigoted commie.

  11. April 16, 2011 8:30 am

    Welcome Humboldt,
    Nobody ever had to apologise for being a ‘bigoted commie’ on Media Studies is Shit.

    With regards to seminars? I feel your pain. But I know what I’m going to do to improve mine. Prof. Jack Rappaport has the answer.


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