Students as consumers? Seeing through a mundane metaphor


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Author: Carlos Azevedo

I believe higher education (HE) leaders have been assuming more about HE students than the available information allows them to. My ongoing doctoral research aims to develop a greater understanding of the effects of managerialism on HE students in the UK, namely how they understand and perceive themselves, the way their identities and relations are being transformed and what strategies they adopt to deal with this transformation. Ultimately (and hopefully) this study aims to contribute to informing HE leadership on students experiences from their point of view.

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s the public sector has been subjected to profound change in most countries of the Western world. Specifically, within HE academic freedom and university autonomy have been transformed through the introduction of multiple control mechanisms over academic personnel (Shore, 2008). However, whilst there has been a great deal of analysis on the institutional upheaval of neoliberalism via managerialism into academia, studies incorporating students’ accounts of British HE and their experiences are notably absent.

In fact, so far most of the literature on this topic has been written by academics who tend to portray the student from their own point of view, in a way that closes down the voice of the student. However, students are also affected by the marketisation of HE and have to face countless challenges, so their voice is vital if we are to sustain multiple voices and diverse interpretations (Ferraro et al., 2015).

So far, HE students’ accounts confirm some of the considerations found in the literature. For example, one of students’ expectations is to acquire skills that later will translate into employability and they tend to reproduce managerial discourses of ‘value for money’. In this sense, HE becomes no more than a means (acquiring skills) to an end (getting a job in the future), and ‘knowledge’ is reduced to a commodity whose value can be assessed by its capacity to translate into a future job. For example, some students differentiate fees in terms of subject choice, with History or Geography degrees considered to be ‘worth’ less than Medicine or Law ones.

Obviously, if students are considered consumers with rights (Molesworth et al., 2009; Maringe, 2011; Williams, 2013), those rights must presumably be fulfilled by someone with the corresponding duties, this is, by academics. Moreover, students report that their relationship with academics has been reduced to a couple of meetings per year, and the everyday social interactions have been partially replaced by the introduction of learning support software. Therefore, the distance between students and academics has tended to increase and fuel this lack of understanding of the position and situation of the ‘other side’.

From the academics’ perspective, students seem to be on the other side of the ‘battlefield’ that university has become nowadays. In this context, the traditional relationship between academics and students has been tending to disappear, not because it has been inverted, but because there seems to be no type of relationship between them.

The findings from my study also reveal that, although students have been portrayed by some academics in a way that reduces their identities to a stereotype, the metaphor of the student as a mere consumer (McMillan and Cheney, 1996), their desires and expectations go beyond this metaphor. Indeed, students view going to university as a ‘life experience’, a period of transition in their lives when they can be ‘free’ and independent from parental gaze, while still benefiting from their protection.

Moreover, the participants reported socialising and making new friends as one of their priorities and, in some cases, the most important aspect of their lives as HE students. Some of the literature (e.g., Nordensvärd, 2011) refers to this process of socialisation as the fun side of joining the university, which seems to be a parody of the importance of building new social relations. However, these social relations assume particular significance when students have to face uncertainties, insecurities, and fears that have always existed, yet seem to have assumed a hyperbolized relevance in our modern and paradoxal life by the increasing fragilisation of human bonds (Bauman, 2000).

Arguably, most of the literature on the neoliberal university has been presenting a limited and narrow view of students’ experiences and expectations, with the term ‘student’ being deployed in a way that reifies and homogenises identity (Knights and Clarke, 2017) . However, there can be no ‘single type’ of student in any identity category, being intersected as they are by ethnicity, class, gender, age, etc.  Neither can identities be viewed as final, since “the processes of their formation are complex, iterative, often unstable and always ‘in process’” (Coupland and Brown, 2012, p.1).

Universities are not professional schools and should not act as such. Their historical mission has been the production of knowledge through research, and its transmission through teaching, activities that by no means can be reduced to a simple transference of skills to students, and that should transcend both students’ and academics’ immediate interests and concerns.

Moreover, in meeting presumed consumptive needs, universities release themselves of any responsibility for enabling the conditions for exciting and unexpected discoveries to be enjoyed by both students and academics. It is the potential to experience such embodied affective encounters, rather than to transact in the mundane, that has the potential to transform those ‘future’ (Ibarra, 1999) and ‘possible selves’ (Markus and Nurius, 1986) yet to emerge.

Therefore, it is important to continue developing this type of research to obtain a multidimensional perspective on the current state of HE in the UK, namely trying to understand students’ experiences from their points of view and revealing their reproduction or reshaping/resistance of particular discourses and the reasons for this. After all, as Lewis Carroll wrote, ‘through the Looking-Glass, nothing is what it seems’.

Carlos Azevedo is a doctoral researcher at The Open University. His research focuses on the marketisation of HE and its impact on students; specifically, he is critically unpacking how HE students are constituted as consumers in the UK. Carlos has presented on this topic at national and international conferences, and the paper he recently presented at the 34th EGOS Colloquium is shortlisted for the Best Student Paper EGOS 2018 award. At the Open University, he is involved in other activities: he is affiliated with the Centre for Knowledge in Organisations and Professions (CKOP) and is co-developing a research project with Dr Caroline Clarke and Professor Emma Bell exploring death in the neoliberal university. He is also a member of the Faculty of Business and Law Postgraduate Students Committee.
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