Students starting university this autumn might be excited about what they could become. They might want to be great thinkers, writers or scientists. But above all, they will want to be individuals. And this desire to be an individual, equipped with the knowledge and understanding needed to become critical and independent-minded, often means that students will dare to disagree and be different.
Little wonder, then, that students can be challenging and difficult. This is not because they are encouraged by universities, under the banner of ‘student voice’, to express their feelings about things they know nothing about. No, students can be difficult and challenging because they have learned something about their academic subject and, on that basis, feel they can think independently, criticise and challenge. ‘Dare to be different’ might be a good slogan for any student.
But such a slogan would now probably be banned if it appeared on a t-shirt in many universities in the UK. That’s because being an individual is now out, and being a McDonaldised product with fixed ‘graduate attributes’ (GAs) is now in. That is, in order to sell their graduate products to business, universities have drawn up lists of characteristics students must have acquired by the time they finish being processed.
George Ritzer coined the term ‘McDonaldisation’ as a neat way of describing how the process of rationalisation (an idea borrowed from sociologist Max Weber) was being applied to cultural and social institutions now subject to the four drivers of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Writing in 1993, Ritzer had a very depressing view of the McDonaldisation of the university:
‘The modern university has, in various ways, become a highly irrational place. Many students and faculty members are put off by its factory-like atmosphere. They may feel like automatons processed by the bureaucracy and computers or feel like cattle run through a meat-processing plant. In other words, education in such settings can be a dehumanising experience.’