'They expect me to make life easier'
When I ask a small group of recently appointed university lecturers
what has been the most unexpected feature of their experience, they
reply in different ways that it is the attitude of students.
A 34-year-old politics lecturer is surprised by the lack of respect
she is accorded by her undergraduates. "They use my office
as a drop-in centre, and when I ask them to come back during my
office hours they give me a blank look," she observes. A 29-year-old
sociology teacher feels that his "students seem to believe
that my job is to service their needs 24 hours a day. They find
it perplexing that I have to devote time to administration and research."
A 30-year-old computer-science lecturer believes that students expect
her to make "life easy for them" rather than to teach
These academics can't put a finger on it, but they are sure that
something has changed in the relationship between staff and students
since their days at university.
And they are right. There has been a change in the conduct of the
basic relationship between academic and undergraduate. It is not
so much that the new generation of undergraduates is uniquely disrespectful
or flippant towards education. Arguably, since they have to make
a serious financial commitment to their education, they take a degree
more seriously than their predecessors did. But they do so not as
students but as consumers of a product offered by a service provider.
The clearest expression of the changing relationship between academics
and students is the contradictory attitudes that the two parties
have towards research. At open days, many university departments
boast about their high research rating to the assembled cohort of
potential recruits and their parents. They use the occasion to inform
the audience that their teaching is research-led and that students
are taught by internationally renowned scholars. Some are impressed
by the prospect of joining a department that is at the cutting edge
of their discipline. But many students and most of the parents are
indifferent to the research culture of their prospective university.
They are interested in the services that the department provides
to students and the value of the degree.
The dynamic set in place at open days helps to create a customer-oriented
culture where the relationship between most potential students and
most universities is that of buyer and seller. With the exception
of a relatively small number of privileged universities and departments,
we live in a buyer's market. Not quite a market, because the expansion
of higher education has not been simply a response to demand but
the outcome of a conscious policy of social engineering led by the
government. This policy of widening access alongside the expansion
of higher education has helped to establish an environment where
many universities are forced to compete to recruit students.
But why should this be a problem? Why should competition not contribute
towards creating a climate where universities become more creative
and innovative? Competition in science, research and innovation
helps advance a society's intellectual and cultural development.
But competition for students helps to unleash a process that fundamentally
diminishes the quality of an undergraduate education. Undergraduates
who are courted by competing universities develop a different relationship
to their teachers from those who had to fight to get in.
What students gain from their experience at university is in part
influenced by the manner in which they have entered higher education.
In previous times, potential students often had to struggle to get
into a university. Gaining a place was regarded as a privilege that
required considerable effort and energy. In such an environment,
students had to compete and stretch themselves to demonstrate their
worth to their future university. Today, this process has been reversed.
It is not the student but the university that has to prove itself
to potential customers. It may not be the case at Oxford University,
but many school-leavers know that there is a university place waiting
for them if they want it.
When gaining a place in a university is regarded as routine and
as requiring only normal effort, the attitude of the future generation
of undergraduates alters. The creative tension and the challenge
of meeting the demanding expectations of a university help produce
students with an orientation towards studying that is different
from the "you are here to service me" mind-set that often
prevails on campuses today. Individuals who have not been challenged
to prove themselves worthy of universities are unlikely to embrace
the intellectual ethos and idealism usually associated with the
experience of higher education. Instead, they will adopt the functional
and instrumental values that prevail in the market.
Sadly, the government and its task force on widening access to
universities are oblivious to how their policy is transforming undergraduates'
Their aim is to devise gimmicks to allow them to cast the net wider.
A growing sense of intellectual complacency is the inexorable outcome
of the replacement of the teacher-student relationship with the
model of the service provider and customer.
Unfortunately, this model goes against the fundamental premise
of an academic education. From the standpoint of service providers,
the customer is always right. It is not their job to question or
criticise the tastes and values of potential customers. By contrast,
academics are often in the business of educating their students'
tastes and encouraging them to question their values. Indeed, one
of the most distinct and significant dimensions of academic and
intellectual activity is that it does not often give customers what
they want. Academic pedagogy does not provide the customer with
a clearly defined product. It does not seek to peddle what the customer
wants but attempts to provide what the student needs. That is why
forcing universities to prove themselves to their customers fundamentally
contradicts the ethos of academic education.
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 April 2004