Higher Education, The ‘market’, and Meaning

By Harshad Keval

When a retailer requests information from its customer / client base regarding the quality of its service and / or product, there is a high likelihood that the retailer has a high level of confidence that its client group fulfil the following criteria:

A)     There needs to be a clear, defined understanding of personal aspirations and needs

B)      There needs to be an understanding and awareness of comparability

C)      There needs to be an understanding / awareness of the meaning of quality

So, to apply this to a concrete example, if Tesco wanted feedback on the quality of its own brand Kettles, it would have a high confidence that its customers:

A)     Have an understanding of their on-going or emergent needs to boil water.

B)      Have an understanding / awareness that there are other kettles on the retail market and be conscious of the fact that they will have at the very least, used more than one type of kettle in their lifetime.

C)      Understand and be aware that judgements about the quality of a kettle necessarily need to be made in the context of comparison to other kettles.

Given that the ‘neo-liberalisation’ of higher education appears to already have developed some substantial momentum, and that the ‘freemarketisation’ of these institutions has now gathered pace, there is an increasing urgency to view how this model of working is measured. One method of measuring ‘success’, amongst many others currently adorning the league table system is ‘student satisfaction’. Given the context of fee paying HE students within an austerity budget arena, is it fair to ask our ‘clients’ to produce ‘quality’ feedback measures based on either a limited or non-existent compliance with the above criteria? This is not, in any way to demean or denigrate the commitment, aspiration, and hard work of many students who arrive at University; on the contrary –we need to question whether HE students should be burdened with the responsibility of providing ‘satisfaction’ scores in a measurement frame that is so wholly limited that it transforms them into tick-boxing automatons, and academic staff into potential customer service representatives.

A student will only be in a position to judge the quality of education they receive after the event, when the rest of their life trajectories have unfolded and revealed to them the vicissitudes professional and personal life has to offer.  The majority of students, even after spending two and half years within an institution still do not have an extensive sense or deep knowledge of the academic arena to be burdened with the kinds of questions existing indicators subject them to.  The on-going, daily, weekly, monthly interactions which academic and other staff have with students should, accumulatively, provide a series of qualitative, quantitative, and reflective indications of ‘how life is’  at a University. The widely accepted critique of this crude and unreflective methodological blindness is worth repeating: it is a snapshot, a frozen moment in time and experience. In other words, at one given moment in a student’s undergraduate life, they are expected to combine the previous potentially hundreds of interactions into one, aggregated measure. In an institution of ‘higher’ education, where advanced analytical, critical and reflective skills are taught and developed, surely the problem is obvious? And surely we owe our students a little more credit than this? If higher education is going to take a long, deep, dive into the privatisation arena, and it certainly looks like momentum is gathering (http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2012/feb/01/would-you-go-to-a-private-university), then shouldn’t there be at least some honesty in adopting business models?

In other words, adopting some selected features of corporate business agendas – for example privatisation of parts of the university system, introduction of ‘key performance indicators’, ‘creation’ of fee-paying clients and ‘satisfaction’ scores, while ignoring other components such as substantial investment in infrastructure, vigilance against isolation, alienation, and increased stress levels of staff (believe it or not, successful corporations sometimes do look after their key resource – their staff), appropriate levels of remuneration, and some semblance of work/life balance, means that what is adopted is a pseudo-business model. We can’t keep talking about the ‘bottom line’, when we haven’t really figured out where this bottom is, or even where to draw the line.

As staff stress levels increase, student expectations (themselves generated by prevailing discourses in socio-economic turmoil and insecurity) become more demanding and precise, casualization of labour increases and higher education pay stagnates (or in real terms gets reduced massively), so the idea and practice of higher education becomes disjointed from the arena most of its workers joined in the last 20 or more years.

This neoliberalisation of higher education then performs a number of functions for a number of actors in this relationship. For the purposes of capital it ensures a ready and steady flow of embodied material labour, keen to replace any and all other bodies in the competition for scarce resources (this is the privilege of free market capitalism). For management and institutions charged with the purpose of delineating who is able to secure a position within this structure – staff and students – the pressures and problems of devolved marketization are clear. Their goal is to run a business, while attempting – often in vain – but always in tension with – the original notion of ‘higher learning’ in the context of intellectual and academic exchange and development of knowledge and practice. For staff that are embedded within this relationship the problem is multifaceted, and the solution is neither clear nor forthcoming. How is it possible to successfully negotiate both ends (management and so-called ‘consumers’) of the neoliberal framework? The other actors, carefully sandwiched between the management structures and staff are of course the students themselves. They represent this ‘other’ slice of the sandwich, and the neoliberal ideological construction of current education policy and practice – but this is also not quite clear cut. The mantra, or perceived conventional understanding of student ‘expectations’ and student ‘experiences’ is that they actually understand themselves as ‘consumers’ and ‘clients’. But this is not Tesco, and learning, understanding, and education cannot regardless of what current ideologies might dictate, be bought. In fact, it is possible to state that students give the impression that they think they are consumers. They have been surreptitiously persuaded and badgered into a position where they have little choice but to take on and accept this new identity – what would be the alternative? The entire neo-liberal individualisation mission, underwritten by free market capital, and currently weeping its way into every aspect of society has for many decades now been ‘de-stabilising the ordinary’, increasing already existing socio-economic vulnerabilities which were at breaking point, and demanding that ‘people’ take more responsibility – for education, health, citizenship, the economy. Students therefore have been given the un-enviable responsibility of determining the nature of higher education, because if management speak is to be believed, the customer is always right. If the customer is always right, what are students going to learn? For everything they need to know in modern day existence is already known to them! If students were engaged with, at all levels in honest, meaningful discussions about what it means to be educated, rather than what it is economically worth to be educated, then the chances are staff and student bodies would agree on many levels. The system of accountability and problem reporting is, like many aspects of our society, incident based. Equality and diversity policies for example are very often incident based, rather than sustainable projects of engagement with difficult questions that we all must contend with within ourselves. Similarly, the position of ‘consumer’, returning to our Tesco model of HE forces students to take on the role, to wear the ‘uniform’ of market driven language, and adopt the posture of ‘satisfied’, ‘unsatisfied’ or ‘not sure’, because management – however one wants to define this powerbase – creates the solution for a problem which continues to replicate itself.

Management, locked in this relationship with capital, staff and students is also in a most difficult position. In order to sustain its client base, its customer numbers, it has to ensure ‘satisfaction’, and this in reality and practice is a proxy for ‘happiness’. Here I take great issue, for there is a general trajectory in what some have called ‘Western’ societies, of a great unwillingness to feel any negative emotions (take the last 3 decades of self-help publishing as an example). Within psychoanalysis and a variety of other therapeutic approaches which deal with the human condition of suffering an accepted wisdom is ‘breakdown before breakthrough’. In other words, frustration, pain, disappointment, and unhappiness are necessary conditions to endure and experience on the road to growth – be it emotional, physical, spiritual or indeed intellectual. As most people familiar with fitness training will testify, muscles grow and become stronger when muscle fibres are stressed and broken down just enough for them to adapt, repair and grow. Intellectual and academic work requires similar diligence, training and acceptance that these journeys will occur, but importantly the ‘pay-off’ is the journey itself, which cannot be taken unless the conditions are endured. Edith Weisskopf-Joelson many decades ago (1955) wrote that there is so much stress placed on ‘being happy’, that when this idealised state is not achieved, there is even more unhappiness, which leads to more measures to avoid unhappiness, and so on and so forth. There appears to be a fear and shame in being unhappy, frustrated, and temporarily unable to move on. It is a little easier to comprehend management’s emphasis on student satisfaction and happiness where this might result in students leaving the institution or not bothering to come to the University in the first place, choosing a ‘happier’ place instead. Where is this sourced? This constant fear of struggle, diligence, and over-coming intellectual barriers? As Eric Fromm explained, we have moved from a culture of being, to a culture of having. To be, to allow stillness is different from not doing anything. The market driven capital based neo-liberal framework depends on the very original Marx-observed avoidance of thinking too much (workers shouldn’t be allowed the opportunity to ‘think’ themselves out of oppression), but also on the perhaps more recent, transnational global movement of capital based machinery, which absolutely depends on movement; never standing still, never stagnating, and never taking too much time to think about consequences of actions. One might look to Gladwell’s Nudge thesis, or perhaps the global financial meltdown of recent years which depended almost entirely on the constant, unobserved and unobservable as well incomprehensible actions of people making decisions without thinking things through meaningfully. There is a constant emphasis on movement, direction, action-plans, business-plans, improvement, extra-added-value, and of course these are part of the everyday negotiations in many workplaces in current society.

How then can we expect student’s to be within a system that has created roles for them to play in a system of structural and economic limitations, while all the time the very people charged with the huge responsibility of guiding, teaching, and ideally allowing students to face frustrations and barriers in a way that allows them to transcend these limitations, are undermined, weakened, often shamed and de-skilled, over-worked, and constantly criticised?

The relationship reflects the kind of oppressor-oppressed relation often found in colonial relationships, where coloniality absolutely dominates and oppresses the weakened, subjugated group, for reasons usually underwritten by profit via raw materials. Here, we can identify the oppressor (we need to move up a few levels and go beyond localised power bases), and the oppressed. But what of the agency-driven, rational thinking, ‘consumer’ students? They are the raw materials, to be mined, shaped, and commodifed in the market place, and competed for by a variety of different masters. The view that they have the power to vote with their feet certainly holds the potential for real impact on real staff, as jobs are on the line, but this is also false in a broader sense. Everywhere they go, students too will face the same marketplace, similar products, and a parallel conflict. The relationship all these actors find themselves in is a perverse take on the oppression complex, but an interesting one. It is interesting because as Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Memmi (1965) identify, one cannot exist without the other. The ambivalent relationship is evident in how the daily workings of University life are manifested – there is order, peace, progress, development and moments of ‘happiness’ perhaps. But all the time there is a strangely quite uneasiness, for the dependent state of all parties causes an inherent troubling and stirring within souls. If the Tesco model of marketization is going to be the preferred route in the future, then all the actors will need to brace themselves because for once, ‘every little helps’ is not going to be helpful, for management, staff or students.