Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Buck the trend, dare to be nasty
A buyers' market is causing universities to be soft on students, but it's time to rebel.

Higher education faces a formidable dilemma as it completes its transition from operating in a sellers' market to one where the customer is king. The cumulative impact of this transition is to alter institutional behaviour, attitudes and, most important, the relationship between students and the university. To put it bluntly, in today's buyers' market the laws of supply and demand and governmental influence are able to shape virtually every aspect of university life. In such circumstances institutional integrity faces a constant challenge from demanding customers.

The shift from a sellers' to a buyers' market fundamentally alters the relationship between university and student. In a sellers' market, students need to compete to gain entry to a university; they understand that they need to work hard, gain suitable marks and show that they are worthy of being taken seriously. Once accepted, undergraduates need to demonstrate a commitment to their work and adopt the expectations demanded. In a sellers'

market, students need to keep proving themselves to their institution.

In a buyers' market, the relationship is all but reversed. Students, unless they apply to an elite institution, are under far less pressure to prove themselves. But many universities, under constant pressure to increase numbers, face stiff competition for students. In a buyers' market, they have to show they should be taken seriously. That is why many universities are obsessed with branding themselves as student-friendly places offering value for money and an exciting student experience.

But the transition from a buyers' to a sellers' market is not as black and white as suggested. Now and again, universities had to compete to gain cash and reputation. Some departments were squeezed by fashionable subjects and had to reinvent themselves to win more students. Nor do customers have it all their way today. Students still need to prove themselves to the top institutions. But even the elite are influenced by the expectations that typify a buyers' market.

The problem with a buyers' market is that it distracts institutions from pursuing their academic role. Unfortunately, the demands of the customer and those of academic learning are not always harmonious. That is why universities face a formidable challenge to their moral and institutional integrity. Revelations about exam boards manipulating marks to ensure students pass degrees point to practices that are not confined to a handful of rogue departments. Cash-strapped institutions are under pressure to attract and hold on to students. That is why so many departments face intense pressure to inflate grades and flatter students. Nice academics and universities are more likely to attract students than those who do not play the game. And putting students under pressure or not passing them is not nice.

It is simply not realistic to expect universities not to adopt a pragmatic attitude towards institutional practices. In a world where the brand is everything, revelations about cheating and the massaging of grades will continue. Low-grade corruption will be excused or justified as part of a new pedagogy of inclusivity and access. New forms of assessment will be invented to test the "entire student experience", and social promotion will be celebrated as essential for raising institutional self-esteem. Which is why we need academics to challenge these practices.

First published on Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 May 2006