McDonaldising the student soul

In today’s McUniversities, ‘graduate attributes’ are being used to create McStudents with no individuality.

Dennis Hayes

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Topics Politics

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.

Many critics have written on the factory-like changes that occurred as the university became ‘McUniversity’. The changes are now familiar: the removal of formal examinations so that grades and pass rates improve; the obsession with league tables; the modularisation process that chopped academic programmes into easily digestible, bite-sized nuggets; and the creation of new teacher-training qualifications for a new generation of McLecturers. Any academic or student can recognise and amplify this picture of how efficiency, calculability, predictability and control are the basis on which McUniversities are now managed.

So, in the McUniversity, students produced McDonaldised work. A good example would be a dull 3,000-word essay structured so that 500 words addressed each of six ‘learning outcomes’ which would be assessed through matching ‘marking criteria’.

But the new and most scary shift involves the McDonaldisation of the student himself. It’s not just the student’s work that has to have ‘outcomes’; the student’s soul will have to have outcomes, too, in the form of measurable ‘attributes’.

The new GAs are all remarkably similar from institution to institution, either because they are all based on the model supplied by Australian universities, the originators of the phenomenon, or because they’re the product of the same bureaucratic minds. Here are the five GAs from RMIT University in Melbourne: work-ready; global in outlook and competence; environmentally aware and responsive; culturally and socially aware; innovative. Reading about them is a dispiriting experience. But you can’t help but ask, as I’m sure any sensible employer will, ‘What do RMIT students know?’

Similar GA outlines are already in place in many universities in the UK, but there is a general panic now about what they mean. Reading through lists of them on university websites, it is easy to see why. Some GAs are plucked from university courses, but others are pinched from particular subjects, which means that they quickly become meaningless without their original context. For example, what on earth is ‘academic literacy’? It means what you want it to mean.

Others appear to be therapeutic, such as ‘critical self-awareness’ or ‘personal literacy’. The commonest – the requirement to be a ‘global citizen’ – is the most empty of all. The explanation of what a global citizen is consists of fashionable buzzwords such as ‘equity’, ‘social justice’, ‘sustainability’ or ‘diversity’.

These bite-sized, easily digestible character nuggets are supposedly discovered through the intellectual rigour of campus focus groups. The real answer is probably from memories of PSHE or citizenship classes in school.

New students should be aware that if they are in a GA university, lecturers will be organising their teaching so that they can ensure they are building the ‘global citizen’ with requisite ‘personal literacy’. When the attributes involve academic subject knowledge or research skills the effect is not just absurd; it’s damaging. They fragment subject knowledge and understanding into a set of bullet points severed from any particular discipline.

Any thoughtful individual might want to challenge the demand to support ‘environmental concerns’ and ‘sustainability’ rather than economic and social progress or ‘diversity’ rather than universality.

Some universities even suggest GAs will make their students ‘stand out from the crowd’. How will being like every other student help anyone stand out? If a university really wanted its students to stand out, it would state on its website: ‘Our graduates are individuals – they dare to be different!’

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby. He is speaking at the next spiked drinks event, Academic freedom in illiberal times, at the Grand Committee Room, Westminster on Monday 11 November. He is also the editor, with Robin Wynyard, of The McDonaldization of Higher Education (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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