Higher education: the value proposition

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.

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10 Comments on “Higher education: the value proposition”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Yes, you must be moving in the wrong circles indeed as most academics are familiar with the definition of students as customers (the way they *should* be seen), also somewhat surprising to read that such a debate is just an exchange of insults, in fact there is a vast literature (one could define it as a new genre) which articulates ideas surrounding the ‘neoliberal university’ and its implications for the students, the following blog offers a useful introduction http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/neoliberalism-and-higher-education/?_r=0


    • Sure, but many people who accuse universities (or their managements) of neoliberal tendencies just throw the label at them without any further explanation – as if neoliberal were just a synonym for ‘evil’. In fact I find it highly debatable whether there really are many real neoliberal tendencies – though aspects of laissez faire free market capitalism clearly have had an impact.

      My point was that we should have a debate that isn’t just based on slogans, labels and uncorroborated assertions. We expect that of Trump, we should also expect it of ourselves.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Neoliberalism, to put it simply, is the idea that everything should be run as a business, clearly laissez-faire tendencies are part of it. My point was that a serious debate not based on slogans does exist, many academics are contributing to it on social media, and not just.


        • I think my point is that much of the debate isn’t about an analysis of pedagogy and/or scholarship, but about ideology. The problem is that those university managements accused of neoliberalism (which as Stanley Fish points out is itself only ever used as a pejorative term) mostly probably have no ideology at all and wouldn’t know neoliberal theory if it smacked them in the face.

          I share the disquiet – or at least some of it – about where higher education is going. But I don’t think that path has been set solely by a great conspiracy of rightwing ideologues. Nor does the answer lie in some retro model, which in any case we can’t recover because the society in which that model thrived no longer exists – not least because we now have far more people entering HE than was the case then.

          This is the kind of debate I want to see. I am hugely uninterested in contributions (not yours of course!) that simply say that the people running universities are all horrible and neoliberals and out to destroy civilisation.

          But I’ll reflect a bit more, which is always right 🙂

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            I agree the answer lies in no retro/nostalgic model, it lies though in one where the ‘value proposition’ to quote the title of this post entails a certain degree of *fidelity* to the ideals of education as a public good one held dear.

  2. Greg Foley Says:

    Have to say, I couldn’t follow the reasoning in the Kathleen Lynch article.

    In DCU at least, the word ‘customer’ is only ever used to indicate a desire to provide the best possible learning experience for the students and to signal that, as lecturers, we should be accountable. There is no sense that ‘the customer is always right’.

    As for the whole ‘neoliberal’ thing, I think it’s just lazy thinking, at least when used in an Irish context. The reality is that higher ed. has had to change for the simple reason that it is no longer the preserve of the few. This poses huge challenges for how we should fund it and given the national budgetary realities since 2008 (at least), it means that institutions always seem to have to scramble around for funding from wherever they can get it. That’s not ideology, it’s reality. (Unless you argue, for example, that the state’s reluctance to pump huge amounts of extra money into third level education is purely ideology-driven.)

    Also, because a third level education is now essentially a requirement for white-collar employment, there has to be an increased focus in institutions on the acquisition of job-relevant skills. The challenge is to achieve this without destroying the traditional university ethos and experience. It’s an interesting challenge, one that we should be willing to take up, and with relish. For me, the thing we should always remember is that there is a very strong correlation between poor mental health and unemployment so we owe it to our students to make them as employable as we can.

    Of course all of this is happening in the context of the globalisation of education, meaning that expectations have been raised everywhere. Teaching, research, engagement etc. are all important and every academic now has to play a part. The days of giving your lectures and taking out the fishing rod for the summer are gone – or should be.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      “The days of the fishing rod academia” this view of universities is so beyond stereotype that verges into the ridiculous, thank God for the ‘neoliberal thing’ otherwise we would never get any research/teaching or engagement done!!

      • Greg Foley Says:

        Even now there is huge inequality in workloads throughout the university system. At one end you still have the academics giving their lectures and doing very little else. At the other you have the 60-hour per week workaholic. Thankfully, the former (the fishing rod merchants) are getting rarer but when I was at college in the 1980s they were everywhere. Maybe your institution is different though.

        But that’s a small point. Ferdinand is right when he says we should be focusing on things like enhancing student engagement pedagogy, research and scholarship etc. Ideology-driven stuff like this (http://defendtheuniversity.ie/) is useless.

  3. Vince Says:

    ‘a neoliberal perspective that has corrupted educational principles’.

    This is the bit of you essay that I do think is totally true. Students are referred to as potential employees. Courses are put on for the benefit of industry, not the students. Fro if they were it would be a simple matter to clip on extra courses when needed without taking a whole year out, or even more.
    You are also playing to a version of the Uni that no longer exists. And not because it cannot exist, but a choice was taken to make the Uni unsafe for thought. No longer can you have five, seven or ten years to develop an idea. No longer can anyone, other than doctors, think they could support a family. But at the same time you have support staff on pension track 15 years before academics.

    My tuppence worth on all this is that you withdraw from State supports entirely. Become a Harvard as it were. Why, because Harvard is not a price taker. And in a neoliberal environment, while you sure don’t have to play to their rules, you do need to protect yourself and you simply cannot expect the various governments to do it. You will be sliced and diced like the County Councils and starved of cash.

  4. Mary Gallagher Says:

    Sorry all, but Kathleen Lynch’s views on the reconfiguration of students as ‘customers’ tallies v. precisely with my ongoing frontline experience in the arts/humanities at UCD. Maybe I’d use the word ‘consumer’ in preference to ‘customer’ but that’s just pedantry. I don’t think I’m supporting KL’s analysis because I’m in thrall to some ideology or other but rather because my work (teaching and research) has always revolved and will always revolve a thing called ‘literature’. Until two years ago I worked, fittingly enough, in the School of Languages and Literatures at UCD. Then the President of UCD told us that our School was going to be transformed (regardless of the concerns of a significant number of colleagues) into a School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. It goes without saying that UCD is well aware of the well-patented market value of Irish literature in English, and that it was only ‘foreign’ literature that was for the chop. When challenged on the reform, the President’s response was stunning: ‘we can sell [sic] culture to students but not literature’. QED for Kathleen Lynch’s point, I would have thought. But lest anybody wonders what’s so significant about declaring literature ‘unsellable’ and therefore unfit for purpose as a ‘descriptor’ of what my colleagues and I teach and research, let me quote Susan Sontag on the value of what UCD has done all it can to remove from its shop shelves: ‘To have access to literature, world literature, [is] to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature [is] the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom. …Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.’
    For my money, Kathleen Lynch’s analysis was just as spot-on as Breda O’Brien’s analysis of the sinister folly of the Junior Cert reform, which is based on a number of misconceptions, including the enormous blunder that involves confusing rote learning (i.e. the necessary internalisation of facts and truths) with over-predictable exams. The two authors’ supposed or explicit espousal of a given Ideology has nothing to do, in these cases anyway, with the rightness of their analysis.


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