Although I must admit to be highly interested in it, I try not to think too hard about the purpose of universities and the whole debate about education as a public good, an engine for economic performance etc. Buts it’s difficult to get away from the growth of marketization and consumerism in higher education. Kenan Malik provided a really good summary of the issues in the Observer yesterday. He captured really well how increasing consumerism in education changes the student-academic dynamic.
What a student-as-a-consumer will not want are all the things that truly define a good education – difficult questions, deep reflection or challenging lecturers. These will be seen not as means to greater understanding but as obstacles to attaining a good degree.
It hit a nerve with me. I’ve been on the end of a few complaints from students recently –basically along the lines of “This material/assignment is hard. We might get poor grades. We are not satisfied. What are you going to do about it and when are you going to do it?”.
In essence it boils down to responsibility. What is the balance between students’ responsibility to learn, show initiative and independence and our responsibility to provide the structure and direction to their learning (or lack of it). Everyone says that they want critical thinkers and independent learners, self starters etc. but my sense is that the climate is increasingly hostile to these aspirations in higher education.
At the same time, there’s been a lot of improvement. Academics are more accountable. Feedback is far better. Learning materials are much better. There’s a lot more transparency. Compared to my students days, we had to find things out for ourselves much more – but we should have had more direction. On balance, I think that things have improved.