Why learning can’t be bought

In a fascinating examination of the consumerised state of higher education, Joanna Williams sheds light where other analyses have emitted only heat.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

‘I don’t know anyone who’s doing university purely to learn […] I was originally more like “I’m really interested in psychology”, but seeing all the numbers on paper I have to gear myself towards money a bit more than towards passion. It definitely changes your focus.’ In this regard, Sam, a 21-year-old psychology undergraduate at a British university, who is quoted in Joanna Williams’ new book, is far from alone. Today’s students, in both the US and the UK, do increasingly look upon higher education as a private investment in return for which they will gain access to better-paid employment. The current head of the National Union of Students (NUS), Liam Burns, admitted as much in April 2011: ‘The point of the university has changed. If you look at when only five per cent of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème… The reality [now] is you need that bit of paper [a degree] to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence.’

And where students have been following, politicians have been leading. In 2009, then UK business secretary Peter Mandelson described a HE qualification as ‘a ticket to higher lifetime earnings’; in 2011, US secretary of education Arne Duncan stated: ‘We need to ensure that all students are able to access and enrol in quality programmes that prepare them for well-paying jobs so they can enter the workforce and compete in our global marketplace.’ That, you see, is the point of higher education today: it is all about student-cum-consumers getting their money’s worth.

In the shape of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t be Bought, Joanna Williams, a lecturer in adult education at the University of Kent, offers an invaluable corrective to this near consensus about the point to higher education. As Arthur Wilson, professor of adult education at Cornell University, asks in Consuming‘s foreword: ‘When did the goals of higher education become mostly about making students more employable…? When did students become consumers, and why?’

Of course, there does recently appear to have been plenty of debate, argument and even protest about the so-called marketisation of HE. In the UK, this was principally sparked off by the decision of the Lib-Con coalition government to raise the tuition-fees cap from £3,375 to £9,000 per year in 2010. Subsequently, while students protested to varying degrees of pyrotechnic effect in central London, activists and politically minded faculty members penned numerous assaults on the government’s policy. The increase in fees, they argued, would put the poorest off going to university; it would restrict access; it would turn a university degree into a rich person’s privilege. And ultimately, social mobility and economic growth would be severely hampered in the process. In the words of shadow universities minister Gareth Thomas: ‘[The rise in tuition fees] makes it much more difficult to protect our world-class university system and, for the country, puts the very building blocks of our economic future at risk.’ Or as one banner put it during a student protest in 2010: ‘Don’t kill social mobility.’

The debates have certainly contained heat. But they have lacked light. This is not surprising, argues Williams, given that both advocates and critics of the current consumer ethos of HE have singularly failed to question their assumptions about HE’s putative purpose, which say it is primarily about generating growth, providing increasing numbers of people (especially from disadvantaged backgrounds) with better-paying jobs, and therefore aiding social mobility. Williams writes: ‘At times, the only real point of disagreement between protesters and government ministers appears to be who should pick up the bill for a university place.’ What is missing is a non-instrumental argument in favour of higher education. What is absent is a sense that academic study, be it of physics or philosophy, could be valuable in and of itself.

Williams’ central contention is this: the rise of the student as a consumer, the transformation of universities into service providers, the so-called marketisation of HE with education as a purchasable commodity, was not caused by the introduction of tuition fees. This was ‘as much a symptom as a cause of the political transformation of HE and what it means to be a student’. More important than the fact of tuition fees (after all, paying for HE has been the case in the US for decades) is the student attitude which underpins it: ‘This attitude, or sensibility, is defined less by the act of purchase and far more by the expectations and sense of entitlement that students increasingly demonstrate in relation to HE. Put simply, if university tuition fees were ended tomorrow, the assumptions that educational success is a right irrespective of intellectual endeavour, and that the purpose of a degree is to make people employable, would remain.’

And why do these assumptions persist? Why is the principal purpose of a degree considered to be its ability to make people employable? Because any notion of the intrinsic worth of education, the passing on of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’, has all but vanished. And little wonder, given that society’s intellectual elite no longer feels confident enough even to assert what is ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. This crisis of an intellectual tradition, which the young were once encouraged to master and, ultimately, to add to, means that one of the chief vehicles for the transmission of knowledge – the university – is forced to justify itself in terms external to education.

This becomes clear in Williams’ illuminating chapter on the history of universities in the US and the UK. As she asserts, there was never any golden age of the university as an institution dedicated solely to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Instead, what emerges is the university as a site of conflict between instrumental and non-instrumental imperatives, between the demands that a university education serve some social purpose and the demands of knowledge itself. One can see this at play in the establishment of the ‘red brick’ universities in England in the nineteenth century. Founded in industrial centres such as Manchester and Birmingham, red bricks were initially dominated by an engineering- and technology-oriented curriculum, such were the perceived demands of industrial Britain. Precisely as a reaction to this form of instrumentalism – the ‘philistinism’ of business and commerce – the likes of Cardinal Henry Newman and, later, Matthew Arnold were developing the notion of a ‘liberal’ education – that is, knowledge considered, as Newman put it, as ‘an end in itself; this is why it admits of being called liberal’. In this sense, education, especially higher education, was deemed by them as a realm apart from industry, a space from which it was possible to pour ‘forth a stream of fresh thought on stock notions and habits’, not develop transferable skills.

Or take the situation in Britain in the 1960s. Enjoying the relative prosperity of the postwar boom, the then Conservative government commissioned Lord Robbins to produce a report on higher education. Despite the already rising numbers of students in HE, Robbins recommended the expansion of the university sector and the provision of student grants on a means-tested basis. But by the time the report emerged, the economy was flagging and Labour was in power. The then secretary of state for education Anthony Crosland didn’t want more universities; he wanted a higher-education sector that would actually benefit the economy. The result was the foundation of the polytechnic sector, enshrining within HE itself a distinction between a more technical vocational idea of education and a more ‘liberal’ version, which was offered by the traditional universities (which now included the red bricks). As Williams summarises: ‘Arguments as to whether higher education should be liberal, academic and for the public good, or for individual economic benefit and social mobility, have raged in different forms for well over one hundred years.’

But since the mid-1990s, the tension between the liberal, academic idea of the university and its more instrumental rival has given way to something approaching a consensus: HE is to be valued almost entirely to the extent to which it allows people access to better jobs and, as a result, helps to grow the economy. As Williams observes of the situation in England and Wales, the establishment in 1990 of student loans in place of means-tested grants ‘encapsulated a final challenge to the notion that HE was a public good worth subsidising from the public purse’. By 1993, John Major’s Conservative government felt certain enough in the vision of HE as something to be purchased in return for higher earning to issue a student charter in which students were told they were ‘customers’ of a university that was intended to ‘deliver a service’. Following the 1997 Dearing Report, which laid the groundwork for the introduction of tuition fees, and the 2003 report Widening Participation in Higher Education, which led to the creation of the regulatory body the Office for Fair Access, the idea that higher education was principally a private investment for financial reward that, suitably expanded, could increase social mobility and spur on the economy, was virtually carved in stone. In the words of Dearing himself: ‘Higher education has become central to the economic wellbeing of nations and individuals.’ ‘The only issue for debate’, remarks Williams again, ‘is who pays the bill’.

The effect on what it is to be a student has been striking. Even at school, potential students are encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, with teachers, careers advisers and guidance counsellors all on hand to encourage them to shop around, to find value for money. Government websites in UK and US are also available to peruse for advice. But as Williams discovers, the message is near universal: in the words of one site, ‘[Graduates] typically earn more money than those without [university degrees]’.

Upon entering university, the hard sell continues. ‘The idea of a… degree as a ticket for future employability with an expected financial rate of return is promoted heavily’, says Williams. This is what the student-customer is paying for. While students in Britain are not recipients of anything quite as unabashed as the faculty course, ‘Customer service, the Cornell way’ – in which lecturers and tutors at Cornell are taught that a ‘university has customers, internal and external, just like other organisations’ – there is little doubt that UK-based students are firmly constructed as consumers of a service. Williams describes the bullet-pointed contractual lists made available to freshers, with headings like ‘We will’ and ‘You will’, which are clearly in line with the 2011 policy document which encouraged universities to establish ‘clear mutual expectations’.

Williams is particularly insightful when it comes to the deleterious effects of the consumer-service relationship upon the nature of higher education itself. Students are effectively learning to be instrumental about their studies. As Patrick, a geology undergraduate, tells her: ‘I think that if you’re a consumer, then you’ll only learn what you need to know… and everyone will learn the same thing. People are not being encouraged to learn for themselves.’ This is not to say that either academics or students are all utterly uninterested by the subjects in and of themselves. But the direction of travel is unmistakeable: students feel they have paid for satisfaction, and tutors feel they are being paid to satisfy. This was something Professor Maranville found out to his cost when denied tenure at Utah University following complaints from students that he had asked them questions they had indicated they had no wish to answer. As Williams points out: ‘An extrinsic focus upon “reward” of a particular grade or qualification in return for following particular rules disincentivises intellectual risk-taking on behalf of both students and lecturers.’

The student-consumer’s obsession with getting value for money is encapsulated in the modern student’s obsession with contact time. That is, the amount of time a lecturer spends teaching the students, much as they were taught at school, becomes an index of value for money (it also pits lecturers against students, remarks Williams). Likewise, the attendance and seminar activity of students becomes a near automatic guarantee of academic success. Yet, as Williams observes, traditionally students have not been taught a subject at university; they have ‘read’ a subject at university. It is a revealing change in academic idiom: ‘The concept of “reading” for a degree… suggests an aspiration towards intellectual independence and an ability to work within the discipline in a less structured way than at school.’

But that is not how it works now. University education is now something which you are given, a thing which is to be delivered down the HE conveyor belt. Students participate, they engage, they demonstrate all the formal requirements of a degree course; but they don’t learn. The content of learning, the active relationship between a student and a body of knowledge mediated by a lecturer, is effaced. In its place is something closer to spoon-feeding students what they need in order to gain possession of that ‘piece of paper’, that ticket to higher earnings.

There are criticisms of the intellectual hole at the heart of the modern academy. In 2006, for instance, the then head of the NUS, Gemma Tumelty, complained: ‘What about learning for learning’s sake…? What about expanding your mind? It’s not just about looking for a course that will get you on the career ladder.’ But these are too often isolated voices. Nowadays, what passes for debate about HE involves little more than a conflict between different versions of the same equally instrumental vision of education. The only difference depends on where the emphasis falls; whether, that is, the various proponents emphasise social mobility or financial reward as the purpose of HE. What are needed are people prepared to ‘argue the case for education for its own sake, education without any purpose at all other than the passing on and development of knowledge and the (often deferred) personal satisfaction to be gained form learning’. Williams, as this bright book amply demonstrates, is one of those people.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Books


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