McEducation – and bits on the side

A conference at Canterbury Christ Church University College, Kent, in July 2001 brought together sociologists George Ritzer and Frank Furedi to debate the question: 'What is the McUniversity?'

James Panton

Topics Politics

A conference on ‘The McDonaldisation of Higher Education’, held at Canterbury Christ Church University College, Kent on 7 July 2001, brought together George Ritzer, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, in a head-to-head debate with UK sociologist Frank Furedi on the question: ‘What is the McUniversity?’

For Ritzer, the world of the McUniversity is one where students and parents see themselves as consumers of higher education, and who expect an increasingly McDonaldised product: cheap, efficient and rational. Ritzer’s thesis is born out of his 1993 book The McDonaldization of Society (1), in which he developed German sociologist Max Weber’s analysis of ‘rationalisation’ – a description of the process by which, in the emergence of modern, industrialised society, traditional modes of thinking and organisation are replaced by means-ends calculations concerned with efficiency and formalised social control.

According to Ritzer, the fast-food restaurant became the dominant organisational form of the end of the twentieth century, representing and extending the process of ‘rationalisation’ throughout social life through an increasing concern with efficiency, calculability, predictability, and increased control.

As conference co-organiser Dennis Hayes explained, the McDonaldisation thesis seems to describe a number of trends in contemporary education: multiple choice tests replace written examinations (efficiency), league tables are used to measure an institution’s performance (calculability), learning outcomes are used to formalise all courses (predictability), and teachers’ classroom activities are increasingly regulated (increased control). For Ritzer, the result of the McDonaldisation of higher education has been disenchantment with education by its increasingly fickle consumers, who are difficult to attract and more difficult still to maintain.

Ritzer’s solution is to re-enchant the consumers of education through the creation of ‘spectacles’. He is aware that turning education into a spectacle runs the risk of downgrading the quality of higher education. But, he asks rhetorically, ‘what could be more spectacular than a return to the one-on-one tutorial system?’ – a practice now restricted to the hallowed colleges of Oxbridge. Increasing the contact between professors and students is one sure way to guarantee a better quality of education, and nothing could be more spectacular than the introduction of one-on-one tutorials into a system that, at present, often involves professors lecturing to halls filled with hundreds of students.

Of course, there is a catch: there are too few academics and there is too little money to make such a return possible; from the perspective of marketised education, one-on-one tutorials are too inefficient. Ritzer’s solution is the use of technology to increase human contact between students and lecturers: for example, lecturers could have the name of every student on a computer screen on their podium, as well as access to the students’ interests and current work.

Yet, as one contributor from the floor suggested, this seems likely only to impose the appearance of human contact on to the reality of massified education. Wiring up lecture halls to link lecturer and students would do little to reinvigorate the transformative potential of a truly individualised student-teacher relationship, in which the particular needs of students can be known and catered to.

Another solution proposed by Ritzer is to do away with the predictability of higher education, and for this he draws on insights given by the McDonaldisation process itself: ‘sneakerisation’. Sneakerisation is a technique employed ‘to increase diversity without sacrificing the benefits of rationalisation’ – for example, when Nike offered its customers the chance to have their own slogan emblazoned on their trainers at little extra cost. In higher education, this ‘mass customerisation’ could take the form of presenting numerous different versions of the same academic courses – such as an Introduction to Sociology course presented on the internet, through an analysis of the press, or on story-boards – from which students could choose.

To retain the principle of quality over quantity, Ritzer proposes that more of the top academics should teach more of the introductory and undergraduate courses, so that students get to meet the famous names in their fields. This, he believes, would make higher education less tedious and increase its attraction to potential students.

Ultimately, Ritzer’s argument is that McDonaldisation per se is not the problem – there is simply too much of it, in the wrong areas. His solutions to the contemporary crisis in higher education are to be found in the sphere of the market.

Frank Furedi, reader in sociology at the University of Canterbury, took a very different view. For Furedi, the current problems in university education are not the result of financial difficulties, but of the way universities have been used for broader political priorities of social inclusion, and the way they have been reorganised to accommodate failures at earlier levels of the educational process.

Recognising that British universities are increasingly centralised and homogenised, and that they have come to treat students like customers – two trends which seem to support Ritzer’s McDonaldisation thesis – Furedi argued that the result has not been an increase in either efficiency or rationality. Rather, an increasingly bureaucratised system has been created, which is irrational in its own terms.

The clearest manifestation of the way education is currently motivated as a quantifiable consumer good, argued Furedi, is the contemporary focus on information and skills to the exclusion of what was once called knowledge. The problem is that education is not a commodity, but a relationship. Indeed, as an intellectual endeavour, education directly contradicts market principles. It involves a long-term commitment to a specific subject in which interest is developed and nurtured for its own sake, and motivated by a desire for non-monetary rewards.

The drive for quantity over quality has led to the relationship of students and lecturers being mediated through an ever-expanding bureaucracy. The one-time informal relationship between teacher and student has been turned into a contractual one, necessarily establishing a conflict of interest between the provider and the consumer. Educators are locked in a tension between providing the homogeneous product required by contract, and the necessary freedom and diversity they need in order to cater for the needs of different diverse students.

The pressure to stick to pre-determined outcomes; the call to spoon-feed students with constant handouts; the increasing banality of academic research designed with the interests of funding bodies at the top of the agenda; the fact that, according to Furedi, it is now possible to obtain a university degree without ever having read a whole book…. All this means that what now goes on in the institutions of higher education has very little to do with education. In Furedi’s view, universities are now organised not around the principle of educating students, but around the principle of therapy, in which support networks and the imperative of inclusivity are favoured over the pressures of critical thinking, rigour and books.

This opening plenary set the agenda for a much-needed critical discussion of the crisis in higher education. Full marks.

The McDonaldization of Higher Education took place on July 7 2001, organised by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard in association with the Institute of Ideas at Canterbury Christ Church University College, University of Canterbury, Kent.

Papers given by conference delegates, including Ritzer and Furedi, are to be published later in 2001 in a book The McDonaldization of Higher Education, edited by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard.

(1) George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society: an investigation into the changing character of contemporary social life (Newbury Park, California: Pine Forge Press, 1993). Buy this book at Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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