Students As Consumers

We have lately discovered that the students want to be consumers. In Britain, where the Government is trying to put the students at the heart of the system by raising, in some cases three-fold, the fees they pay for higher education, the pitch is rather acute. Everyone concerned, including the universities, seem to believe that by this strange play of fate, where the students have to assume the costs of their own education, they will suddenly become consumers; ironically, this means they will turn rather passive - as the consumers do - and disengaged, and expecting the education services to be delivered to them. The manifestation of this belief is plastered everywhere, from what the government counts as the most important aspects of education (contact time, graduate employment rate etc), to what the bureaucrats mandate as the measures of quality of education (adequate and accurate information, communicating what is to be delivered and ensuring the delivery of what is expected), and to what the institutions themselves believe are important, like student experience, which is rather nebulously defined to include whatever goes on in the campus, including the food in student cafeteria.

This idea is so widespread that it is difficult to challenge it. In fact, I rather uncritically accepted it at first, and wanted to do a research on how this will change the practises of university teaching. However, the question that stopped me was students have become consumers as opposed to what: I did not have a clear answer. An easy way to theorise was after Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote about society of consumers as opposed to the society of producers, the idea of instant gratification against deferment of enjoyment. However, while the idea may ring true in the context of wider society, the whole concept of studentship - going to college rather than doing something more enjoyable - may be all about deferment of enjoyment. While some theoreticians of Higher Education may see the tyranny of 'learning objectives' as proof that the education has become a commodity, students have done nothing to initiate the transformation. Seen this way, they are at the receiving end and are being repositioned as consumers, and as I would claim, the idea of studentship is being changed by the institutions that define them.

The students want the degree and a good job in the end. May be. But that does not make them consumers. That makes them, well, students. The students of all ages would have done that: Just that the people who went to the university before the age of mass Higher Education did not need a job in the same way or form today's students do. They went on to run their family businesses or to farther its political prospects : Their families, which paid for the education in most cases, want the candidate to be appropriately educated. If that did not make them consumers, today's students can not be denigrated as consumers by the same token.

It is rather the transformation at the institutional end which is significant. While the students may follow a similar life - may be they party less at this time of austerity and worry more in this era of joblessness - a consumer identity is being imposed upon them. They are supposed to receive, not demand. They would be given the information, and if a job waits for them in the end, they should consider themselves lucky. The education is all about experience - they are being told - than about transformation: So brace yourself for a ride as if you are in a theme park. Rather like womanhood which has been repositioned to be synonymous with the shape of the body, studentship is defined not by its inherent possibilities but by its limits.

Everyone indeed should be happy with this: Repositioning students as consumers is one thing the incumbent state could do to ensure social sterilisation at the time when prisons are full and there are no jobs in the military. Today's bureaucratic universities, endowed with good money and good sense by those who run the state, would much rather be the reproductive organ for workers and service providers for the students as consumers, rather than becoming the hotbeds of personal transformation and other dangerous businesses. The students, just as the working classes have been sold a dream of home ownership and spend their lives toiling to pay for it, are expected to fall in line, not least because of the debt they must assume for the privilege of the servitude.

However, the redeeming thing is that they remain - yes - students. They still study and discover. The student work becomes a form of knowledge, as Basil Bernstein discovered with such clarity. As Theodore Zeldin would remark - they changed the subject of the conversation the rulers wanted them to have. They participate through a conscious subversion, just by being themselves, keeping their dreams alive, just by the simple acts of reading, talking, writing or in some cases, by dropping out. They remain in control, as students in other ages also did, they shape their own experiences. From close quarters, one action at a time, they make the hegemonic discussion about student consumerism meaningless.


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