Student Experience in Higher Ed: Exit and Voice

I have written about Exit and Voice before (See here) but not in the specific context of Higher Ed. I believe this merits special mention as Higher Education becomes more business-like. As Businesses try to become more like Knowledge Communities (and build campuses, among other things), the talk in Higher Ed is to turn students into 'customers' and of reigning in costs and instilling 'accountability': This may indeed have an impact on how the students engage with the institutions, and Hirschman's mechanics of Exit and Voice may become as relevant in the classroom.

Hirschman's key point is that the organisations can exist and function at a sub-optimal level, something that is an impossibility in classical economics with its obsession with equilibrium and efficiency.  So, if a firm misbehaves or does not deliver, its customers will leave them and the firm will disappear, is the assumption which led mainstream economics to devote so little attention to sub-optimal situations. However, as we know now, markets are not perfect and inefficiencies and dishonesty can exist and thrive in the world of business: The customers often stay where they are, because they don't know, they feel powerless or the cost of switching is too great. Now this happens in Higher Education as often as it happens in business: In fact, the problem of information is ever so great, the students may actually yield very little power and switching remains almost impossible without a great loss of time and money. Sub-optimal Higher Ed is not only possible, it is indeed very common.

In fact, it is rather easy for a Higher Education institution to exist at the sub-optimal level, because the students can't really exit and they are less exposed to unforgiving market forces because of the regulatory barriers. Hirschman's point was that in cases like these, as Exit is difficult, the students would resort to Voice (just as Citizens do); and they indeed did so in the past. Apart from the negative reason (that Exit is difficult), this participation was governed by the nature of the Higher Education institution, a community: It mattered to the students if the community supported a supposedly immoral act, or repressed freedom, and the political engagement reflected a concern about the nature of the community that one belonged to.

Businesses crave for this kind of engagement. They don't want customers to leave silently, because exit is costly, but rather protest, which is costly too but perhaps cheaper in comparison to exit. Facebook would rather have customer outrages (which bring good media coverage) than silent inactivity of the accounts that killed MySpace or Friendster.  But I would still rather not waste my time giving feedback when I am overcharged at the Iceland Foods till, and not shop in the erring store instead. Because one does not really care about the moral health of a shop where one goes for convenience and economy: There are always other shops to go to if a particular one fails to behave properly.

Yet universities want to become their students customers, and themselves, providers of Higher Education. The fashionable discussion in Higher Ed is how to make exit easier - let's make credits portable and transferable and courses modular - and the relationship based on transactional, ensuring the student gets value for money. The universities are falling over themselves to outrank each other in various rankings, which dissect the educational experience in various component parts and using some opaque, opinion-laden calculus, come up with a score, which, being a number, looks closer to universal truth than the 'touchy-feely' notions of educational excellence. There is talk of 'deliverables' and 'performance', assuring students of 'value for money': And, indeed, the implicit invitations to spurn other offers.

Does this new engagement highlight the possibility of 'exit' more potent in Higher Education?

I think it does, in two important ways:

First, the incident of students exiting has become far more of a serious problem. It is yet to be established whether this is because of the expanding access to Higher Ed, changing demographic, poor schooling or the changing relationships in Higher Ed. 'Exit' is still treated as an aberration in Higher Ed, and therefore, linked to failure of educational attainment rather than a common response to a commercial transaction. While no one blames the customer for leaving a truant store, it is the students who become truant when they leave education. One could possibly analyse the incidences of exit with a perspective of the students' journey, though admittedly, this is a difficult kind of research almost no one has any incentive to do.

Second, it also changes the nature of the 'voice', with students protesting more to obtain better grades and easier curriculum, rather than the political stances of the community as a whole. Arthur Levine's trilogy on student life ('When Dreams and Heroes Died', 'When Hope and Fear Collide' and 'Generation On A Tightrope') help put things in perspective, as does the excellent enthnographic study done by Rebekah Nathan (not her real name) in 'My Freshman Year'. Indeed, this is reflected on the discussions on the student portals, where current students advise others to avoid one school or other like a plague, but rather remain anonymous and would carry on being a conforming student in her day to day life. The quality assurance systems in different countries want student participation, but frames this participation in the market-friendly terms of 'quality improvement': They would rather hear students advising that there should be extra copies of textbooks in the library than suggesting about opening a new LGBT section.

Finally, what does it mean for educational practice?

Indeed, the communities are rather unforgiving to those who leave them, but as universities recast themselves as businesses, they may need to have a different approach to exit. They are trying to emulate the businesses by putting processes in place: The consultants and software makers, who claimed to have provided the panacea for the problem of exit for the businesses but failed, are delighted to find this 'new market'. However, if the universities want to learn from businesses, they would be better off looking around not for past practices which apparently have failed, but emergent ones with promise: Because if they do, they would see that successful businesses are trying to discover the community which the universities are so readily trying to abandon. Just as these businesses try to create the emotional bonds, the universities are framing their relationships as transactions. Just as these businesses are trying to be part of the customers' identity, the universities are busying themselves with being a 'value for money' commodity. Businesses have learnt from universities because they were so successful in the last half century; universities are failing to learn from businesses, because despite what they do, they are so averse to learn anything.


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