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The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer was suggested by Keith Smyth

As part of the Ragged Library, Keith Smyth, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at Edinburgh Napier University suggested ‘Molesworth, M., Scullion, R. and Nixon, E. (Eds.) (2010). The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer. Oxon and New York: Routledge.’…

Published in 2010 (paperback 2011), The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer presented a timely, and still invaluable, critical consideration of the state of Higher Education in the UK set against a backdrop of post-war education sector reforms and within the context of government policy being introduced as we entered the current decade.

The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer

The initial expansion of UK Higher Education resulting from the publication of the Robbins Report in 1963 has, in the last two decades, been followed by a further period of growth that has seen the number of UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) rise from around 60 in the mid 1980’s to over 140 today.

As is reiterated throughout The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, the government policy that has driven the expansion of UK HE, including the widening access agenda and the principle of fair access, has resulted in a more educated workforce and increased equality in the opportunity to benefit from HE. At the same time it has also led to heightened competition between HEIs and the increased adoption of market mechanisms.

This, and a recognition of the potential impact of the latest government cuts incoming during the authoring of this text (in the lead-up to the Browne Report) provide the general context for a rich and in-depth exploration of challenges, concerns and implications by a range of leading educationalists.

Organised across three themed sections, Section 1 tackles the Marketisation of Higher Education and begins with an exploration of the characteristics of Higher Education markets by Roger Brown. The consideration offered around key factors including institutional autonomy, institutional competition, price and information is a pragmatic one.  Brown outlines the complexity inherent in the marketisation of higher education, and this complements well the chapters by Nick Foskett and Ronald Barnett addressing the HE sector as a politicised ‘quasi market’ characterised by significant government influence and increased competition for resources between HEIs.

Section 2 addresses The Marketised Higher Education Institution, and in the chapters by Helen Sauntson and Liz Moorish, Chris Chapelo and others we can find, to varying degrees of strength, a clear warning against where the ‘commodification’ of Higher Education might lead us in terms of standardisation, the constraining of creativity in learning and teaching, and the implication, as described in Frank Ferudi’s excellent introduction to the text, that if the student as customer and consumer is always right then we had better give them what they want.  As highlighted at several points elsewhere in the volume, this view is in stark contrast to the outlook many academics hold around the need for education to be challenging, perspective-broadening, and ultimately about personal growth.

As Sauntson and Moorish conclude at the end of their chapter, the emphasis universities place on marketing and prestige, league tables and branding, and increasingly on notions of ‘product’, sees the sector in a position whereby “there are very few universities, it seems, that choose to portray themselves in harmony with the ethos of those academics who work within their walls” (p. 84).  Sauntson and Moorish suggest this indicates that the dominant, but now tainted, neo-liberalist rhetoric is not without challenge in HE.

This is certainly evident across several chapters in Section 3 Students, Consumers and Citizens.  Here, amongst a series thought-provoking contributions, Johan Nordensvard argues convincingly for citizenship as an alternative metaphor for reconceptualising what it can and should mean to be a student in Higher Education. Elizabeth Nixon and colleagues then consider how curriculum models founded on well-intentioned principles of learner choice, autonomy and personalisation might, without opportunities for critical engagement in the self, be contributing as much to sustaining the ‘student as consumer’ metaphor as they are to effective learning.

Within the text as a whole, the challenge to the neo-liberalist perspective in HE is arguably at its strongest and most political in Mike Neary and Andy Haygard’s chapter on the ‘pedagogy of excess’.  Central to this argument is that the transformative potential of HE, and the potential to transform HE, requires a more radical addressing of research-teaching linkages than we are currently dealing with in the sector, and one that can “transcend the constraints of consumerism by overcoming the limits of what it is to be a student in higher education” (p. 210).

With an emphasis placed on “collaborative acts of intellectual enquiry” and the lessons that can be learned from the 1968 student protests in France, Neary and Haygard offer an ultimately optimistic view of the possible, and of the intellectual power that that lies in academics connecting with undergraduates as intellectual partners in research and scholarship.  However, as an aside to this review, Neary and Haygard’s perspective does not merely put forward a rhetoric of the possible, and interested colleagues seeking to grasp how this might look in practice are directed towards the Student as Producer initiative the authors instigated at the University of Lincoln http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/partners/.

Within the current climate in UK Higher Education, and within the broader social and political climate in the UK generally, the editors and authors for The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer are to be commended on the breadth and depth of their collective discourse. This book does not offer a complete decrying of the marketisation of Higher Education, and there is a careful consideration of the role this has to play alongside the more overtly radical arguments put forward.  However the book is ultimately challenging in exactly the way that is currently needed in the sector right now, asking us difficult questions about what Higher Education is for, how we have come to this point, and where we might go in the future.

At a time of unprecedented uncertainty and change within UK HE, when the actions and decisions of our institutions and educators count for everything, the Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer is recommended reading for HE leaders and educators in general, and on Postgraduate Certificate programmes in academic practice for new lecturers.

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