An interesting piece in today’s THE “Students’ unions face uphill battle in anti-consumerism fight”. It is covering an academic article that appears in this month’s edition of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, “Students’ unions, consumerism and the neo-liberal university”. It’s an interesting contribution, but one that I think it seriously flawed.
In the THE, one of the article’s authors is quoted saying “The irony for students’ unions is that one of the main means of retaining independence and being able to resist consumerist agendas, is by embracing commercialism and providing services to paying students”. What utter nonsense!
The first assumption that is made in the article is that consumerism or market-like behaviour by students is something new, a phenomenon that started in 2012, or perhaps the early 1990s. In fact many of the behaviours that are citied as all-of-a-sudden prevalent among students “see a degree as a private investment (rather than a public good); be prepared to accumulate significant debt in order to acquire it; and actively ‘shop around’, comparing institutions and courses to secure the ‘best’ possible education” can be identified in students as far back as 600BC in Ancient Greece (I talk about this and many other historical links through the centuries in one of the chapters in the book I co-edited that’s still available in all good book shops i.e. Amazon!). So this is nothing new, and needs to be accepted by the “we’re all going to hell in a handcart, HE doom” brigade if we are ever to build a meaningful and rich understanding of the very complicated relationship students have with their places of learning.
I feel the authors of this piece have made the error of confusing the multi-faceted and high complex relationship universities and unions have with an idealised, single communitarian model. The existing system is critiqued at length and often badged “neo-liberal”, but no alternative is articulated. The truth is that Universities, and for that matter Students’ Unions are very complex organisations and the relationship with students is equally complex.
At its core, a Students’ Union is established to advocate the views and rights of students, this is certainly best achieved through a spirit of partnership with the University. But unions have also developed sophisticated and valuable structures in addition to this, such as organising volunteering opportunities, job shops, sports and societies and commercial services that reflect the wider needs of students and the university community in which they exist. This article seems to assume that this activity is an unnecessary distraction from partnership. I don’t think it is! Students, while at university want a rich and varied set of experiences and it is perfectly acceptable and reasonable for a students’ union to play a role in providing them. If students want to eat Mars bars, then why on earth should a students union not help them to get one?!
I think also, the mistake is made of assuming that consumerism and partnership are mutually exclusive and totally incompatible. I don’t agree with this. If you look at the student journey through education, it is reasonable to conclude that they might make some decision in very similar ways, irrespective of whether it is a consumer or partnership model on offer. I’ve often shown the following table as an illustration of this when giving presentations on the matter:
|Choice of a range of providers||X||X|
|Choice between a range of courses||X||X|
|Make informed choices||X||X|
|Free to chose course that suits you||X||X|
|You can provide feedback||X||X|
|You can suggest improvements||X||X|
|Provider is the expert||X|
|You are responsible for your education||X|
|If it breaks, you can take it back||X|
The key difference, as is highlighted at the bottom of the table is the level of responsibility students have for their own education. If students do not actively engage with the learning opportunities available to them at University, then they will gain nothing and will not be to go back and request a replacement of themselves after three years of study!