Sunday, 13 May 2018

Are Students Customers (and If not, what are they paying for? Some Thoughts

I was asked recently about my views on the marketization of higher education, specifically in relation to the UK and students’ view of themselves as customers. Over the last few weeks, this question of has been niggling away at the back of my mind almost non-stop: if students aren’t the customers of universities, then what are they?  And, more importantly, how would I explain this to a student if needed?

This is a discussion that has been ever present in UK HE since the introduction of top-up fees in 1997, and has become even more prominent since the lamentable decision to withdraw funding for UK undergraduate students under the Con-Dem coalition government under Cameron-Clegg.  Yet my own teaching experience has brought me into contact with other systems (Chinese, French, British and US) which place different financial demands on students. While most of my Chinese students and their families have paid tuition fees upfront, international students I’ve taught have funded their education via some configuration of cash, financial aid, bursaries, scholarships and student loans. They often have an even stronger view of themselves as customers – or it is manifest more openly. Colleagues in the UK, US and Australia have reported that students can become very demanding (some crackers stories of students and this Guardian article seems to capture this pretty well: Academics Anonymous: My students have paid £9000 and now they think they own me).  There are more head-on rejections like this one on Slate concerning US HE, but while I find these logical and persuasive, they tend to argue points on salary and how tuition fees are used rather than questioning the very foundation underpinning the student-as-customer mindset. 

The problem of students viewing themselves, or being viewed by institutions, as customers is both simple and nuanced. In simple terms, this view commodifies an undergraduate degree and reduces it to the status of something that is purchased.  The nuance is that this characterizes higher education as something that is done to students, visited upon them, by their professors and lecturers.  The commodification of higher education is straightforward, but it is this more nuanced understanding of higher education which more severely undermines both the students, the academic faculty and the institution in creating the conditions conducive to a rewarding and enlightening educational experience.

This blog post will give some thoughts of mine on two aspects of this problem. Firstly, a quick look at how I’ve made efforts, without directly addressing this student-as-customer perspective, to give students a more helpful perspective on their undergraduate education.  Secondly, some views on how we really need to reframe this discussion to fix clearly in our own minds how to refute this misleading and ultimately damaging notion that students are buying an education. 

Vessels or Fires: The Student’s Mind
In my Year one/Freshman intro lectures over the last two years, I’ve spent the first hour going through the syllabus with my students (classes varying in size between 82 students and 170 students).  The second hour has been spent laying out how I expect students to approach their studies, and what the differences are between high school and university.  I’ve never directly addressed the student-as-consumer question in class, but focused more on encouraging students to shift the way the view themselves, their education and how they approach syllabus content, lectures and seminars. 

I won’t go into too much detail here, as this part of the lecture is a 30-40min exploration of good habits, bad habits (and how the best students are often a mix of both who learn to enjoy their university experience), but the general gist is to challenge students’ thinking about their minds as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.  This small point seems to make a very clear impact from day one, and is reinforced consistently throughout the semester (including in the design of assessments which allows students to explore topics and content of particular interest to them personally). 

This part of the lecture is pretty brief, but students get it.  I can often see them looking at this picture thinking (above): But isn’t that what we’re here to do? Learn things and fill our minds with new knowledge?

Until, of course, they see the next picture. 

This is the way I want all of my students to regard their minds while at university: as a fire in need of fuel. This view of their educational journey – as a mission to kindle that fire and find the very unique combination of fuels that make their own fire burn brightest – allows them to extend their educational experience beyond the classroom.  Viewing their mind in this way (I hope) will allow them to engage more actively with (a) syllabus and module/course content and assessments, and (b) all activities they pursue outside the classroom through extra and co-curricular activities.  Additionally, I would hope it might inform their module/course choices, encouraging them to explore subjects and topics in which they possess an intrinsic interest, wherever possible. 

Again, this attitude towards university is something I hope my students will foster from day one.  The question to which we now turn is: how can this “Mind-as-Fire” disposition help combat the damaging effects of the student-as-customer perspective that many, if not most, students seem to have. 

Students Are Not Buying An Education
Before we get deeper into this, its vital to acknowledge how the introduction of undergraduate education tuition fees transformed UK higher education.  This will help us obliterate the student-as-customer argument.  What follows is a little UK centric, but makes a point that is absolutely valid in any context where tuition fees are charged directly to the student. 

Before the introduction of tuition fees in 1997, who paid tuition fees? It was the UK government. Was the UK government buying degrees for young British students?  No.  Definitely not.  Were the UK government the customer of the universities when they paid tuition? No.  Definitely not. 

So what exactly were they doing when they paid grants towards to tuition fees? 

They were investing in young people.  And that, ostensibly, is what changed with tuition fees.  The UK government withdrew its investment in school leavers, placing the burden for that investment upon the students (and families) themselves. The resulting shift in attitudes has been the most lamentable and damaging consequence of the introduction of tuition fees, both amongst students and at the institutional and sectoral levels. 

So What Exactly Are Students Paying For?
This is the crux of the matter and to answer this effectively, we need to acknowledge that students are paying for something:  freedom, time and opportunity. 

Tuition fees and maintenance loans buy time.  They function to remove the students’ economic necessity: placing the student in a context where they can pursue and accumulate cultural and social capital free from the need sustain themselves through labour.  

Some of you may be recognizing a theoretical framing here:  Pierre Bourdieu.  And you’d be right.  As Bourdieu asserted: “it is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory” 

Our students need to study to ensure they achieve the best degree possible.  A degree is a form on institutionalized cultural capital that attests, beyond dispute, that the holder has credentials. It cannot be removed once bestowed. It cannot be contested once awarded. 

Yet by far the more important form of cultural capital at university is what Bourdieu called embodied cultural capital. This comes in the forms of taste, skills, attitudes, dispositions and behaviours inculcated throughout our childhood socialization and educational experiences. Embodied cultural capital is at the heart of privilege, where those in positions of privilege have had a far longer investment in education aimed at the embodiment of cultural capital.  To give an example, a student might have bought a MacBook, but this is essentially a form of economic capital unless the student possesses the skills, the embodied cultural capital, to use different software, be that MS Office, Garageband, FinalCutPro, Twitter, GoogleDrive or anything else we care to think of.  University offers various different ways this embodied cultural capital can be accumulated, not always through formal classes and assessments. 

Here, the concern isn’t with the social justice implications of cultural capital, but with the way students should view their education once admitted to an undergraduate program in order to help them realize the greatest benefits. In this way university is not dissimilar to World of Warcraft or other online role-playing games: students aim in this game is to form their own persona through the active pursuit of embodied cultural capital.  This form of cultural capital can’t be bought with money, it can only be accumulated through experience, and the university provides a vibrant landscape with an endlessly flourishing and infinite variety for students to pursue.  The major difference between university and World of Warcraft is that you don’t get endless lives, you have to use the time wisely, and at the end you get to be that person in the real world regardless of how well you’ve done.  Your prior socialization and education allows you to enter university more tooled up than many of your peers (Private schooling? Private tuition? Extra-curricular activities?), so its no level playing field, but the results are far from certain, and for those who are more successful in identifying what they’re interested in, what path they want to take in the real world, and who it is they want to be, the benefits of investing in a university education can be limitless.

Students who view themselves as customers are, then, not really at university.  They’re just taking modules/courses towards a certificate.  Our challenge as academics is to get them to open their eyes; to recognize the myriad opportunities available inside and outside the classroom at university; to use this freedom and time to consciously and reflexively take advantage of the opportunities that university presents, and from Day One to adopt an approach to university that liberates them from this damaging and restrictive straight jacket that is the student-as-customer mindset. 

We need to do our students a solid here and make damn sure they realize this from the minute they arrive.

(I will follow this up with a post on social capital in the university – specifically the role of social capital in enthusing students in relation to argument laid ut above.  However, there are a number of thoughts I have on this related to research obsessiveness, adjuncts and zero contract hours, overuse of GTAs and other features of the modern university that hugely impact on social capital.  So a separate post will follow in a week or so).