no money can buy
If we spark students' idealism and curiosity, they may begin
to see us as more than paid servants.
Major events such as the recent industrial action provide social
scientists with insights into the world we inhabit. We learn a little
bit more about who we are and where others stand in relation to
us. A lot has been said about the attitudes of management, the Government
and the union.
But the most interesting insights I gained have been about students.
Some have been strong supporters of their teachers' action. Others
have responded with a surprising degree of indifference. But, for
me, the most disturbing dimension of the student response is the
manner in which a growing section of them regard their interests
as distinct from and even contradictory to those of their teachers
A recently appointed sociology lecturer told me she was shocked
by the lack of respect that some of her undergraduates have displayed
towards her role as an academic. "I am paying you" and
"you are here to teach us" were some of the phrases used
by her consumerist-minded students. She had the distinct impression
of being treated as a servant by customers who were interested only
in the service she provided for them. The attitude that conveys
the idea that "we have paid for our degrees, so you give us
our money's worth" informs the way that her students regard
their relation to academics.
Many academics have received e-mails from students indicating that
the demand for getting "my money's worth" is fairly widespread.
Others have been confronted with comments that convey the impression
that academics are selfish and greedy individuals who are reluctant
to put in a good day's work. Of course, we all understand students'
concern for their future. But it is difficult to know how to respond
to comments that are informed by the assumption that this was a
dispute in which the interests of students and staff were contradictory.
In such a case, you have to engage in a very basic discussion about
what is the role of a university, of an academic and of a student.
It is one thing to participate in a debate about the rights and
wrongs of industrial action. It is quite another to have to explain
that your role is not simply to be useful to your students.
In such circumstances, legitimate arguments that point to the need
to defend integrity and long-term coherence of academic life may
come across as an exercise in narrow professional self-pleading.
Once academics have to demand respect for their status and authority,
they are well on the way to losing it.
It looks like the recent industrial action will accelerate the
consolidation of a consumerist consciousness among undergraduates.
Whereas in the past the contractual dimension of the student-teacher
relationship was fairly implicit, it now exercises a dominant influence
over the proceedings.
There is little doubt that, even if industrial action had not occurred,
the sense that academics and students have potentially contradictory
interests would have become more pronounced.
We do a very good job of containing and undermining the powerful
sense of idealism and intellectual excitement that many young people
bring with them when they come to university. The challenge we face
is to do what we can to encourage that excitement and idealism so
that they feel that their experience is not reducible to the language
of hard cash.
published on Times Higher Education Supplement,
16 June 2006