There are few people who would argue that higher education does not have value, both for the student or graduate and for society. But perceptions of what that value is, and who or what derives the most benefit from it, can vary greatly. In addition, some people have, over recent years, claimed that the growth of higher education has been accompanied or even prompted by a neoliberal perspective that has corrupted educational principles.
The latest contribution asserting this point of view has come from Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality Studies at University College Dublin. In an article in the Irish Times she argues that as the proportion of public funding in the overall university restoring envelope has declined, students have ‘inevitably’ come to be ‘seen through the lens of market value’. There has therefore been a ‘cultural shift’ which is ‘symbolised in the use of market language, referring to students as “customers” or “clients”’.
It is possible that I don’t move in the right circles, but I have to say that I have never ever heard anyone in any university refer to students as ‘clients’. The term ‘customer’ can occasionally be heard, but almost always in an analytical sense – i.e. in assessing what impact new forms of funding may have had – but never as a statement of how students should be seen.
Nevertheless, the argument is worth pursuing. There is no doubt that in society more generally the focus of regulatory attention has been shifting since the 1980s from protecting producers to empowering consumers. This has in particular affected trade unions, whose members coalesce around the common interests of those engaged in production. In the world of industrial relations the shifting balance of power was made visible when, for example, the hugely influential academic Otto Kahn Freund declared in the early Thatcher years that he had come to the conclusion, ‘outrageous from a Marxist point of view’, that the state’s task was to represent the consumer (Labour Relations: Heritage and Adjustment).
The question this raises in higher education is this: what does all this mean for the student? It is entirely possible to argue that the new focus on consumer rights has placed a welcome emphasis on the student experience. Others will argue that it has commoditised learning and that developing it to meet ‘customer demand’ prejudices pedagogical integrity. This, probably more than anything else, is the current no man’s land between the trenches of the educational modernisers and the traditionalists. The weapons used so far in this battle have been rather blunt – slogans rather than arguments: the charge of ‘neoliberalism’ means little when it is just deployed as a general insult in someone’s demonology.
This is a good and necessary debate: but I think it needs to be conducted much better.