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My piece on university education (somewhat eclipsed by the governments latest report out this week)

The customer is always right. This well-known phrase attributed to Harry Gordon Selfridge Sr. of Selfridges department store fame has perturbed many a retailer. It seems universities must also feel its burden.

Andrew Croskery, an electrical engineering graduate has taken Queen's University in Belfast (QUB) to court after they awarded him a 2:2 degree. He argued that had he received better supervision he would have obtained a 2:1. His barrister Tony McGleenan argued that the university's stance was not compliant with his client's human rights. "It is obviously an important case for the applicant. He avers his employment prospects have been jeopardised...in this competitive jobs market”.
At one level this could be seen as a clear case of ‘trying it on’, but it is not the only example of forthright ‘consumers’ of higher education challenging academic decisions. The erosion of the traditional concept of education and its replacement with ‘knowledge provider’ and ‘customer’ means we are likely to see more cases like this. There are already many.

Afua Hirsch reports in The Guardian “Amanda McKoy, a midwifery student at Oxford Brookes, successfully argued that the high court was competent to interfere with the university's claim that she would not make a fit midwife because she had performed poorly on the course”. £16,000 in costs were awarded.
In America where the process of commodification has gone further The American Law Review details a case of a group of students filing a $120 million class action against the American Justice School of Law in Paducah, Kentucky for, among other things, scheming to defraud students. And of John Valente, a second-year student at University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, filed a complaint against his school, citing negligence in dealing with exam software.

Not all examples lead to court action but questioning academic decisions as you might question the bill in a restaurant is increasingly common. Even if the student’s case against their grade suggests they might not be capable for university level work appeals are taken seriously by the institution. A senior manager from a leading UK university told Spiked about a case where a student who failed her degree appealed on the basis that she suffered from Dyspraxia. (Dyspraxia affects the planning of what to do and how to do it. It is associated with problems of perception, language and thought). It was inappropriate, and discriminatory, to ask the student to give seminar presentations and write essays as part of her degree.

In a more everyday setting an academic from a university in the Midlands talks of faculty heads raising students’ concern that they are not receiving enough detailed feedback on essays. “The amount of feedback has increased substantially but students are never satisfied” she says, later adding “Students come to university having been taught to pass an exam. The are used to being told exactly where they went wrong and what they should have said in order to pass”. They therefore expect the same at university.

University education today has become a three-year endeavour to achieve greater earning potential. By the government is it seen as a means to increase the UK skills base. Seen in these terms, students expect value for money. With tuition fees of £3,200 per year, it is not surprising that they want to be sure they are gaining the skills required for a financially rewarding career. As such they want lots of contact time with lecturers, booklists which detail exactly which bits of a book they need to read, handouts and lecture notes, detailed feedback on essays and pointers on what to revise for exams. They are paying the lecturers wages so the product they receive better be good.

Students entering university are no longer reading for a degree but paying for a service. They enter into a business contract with the institution that by the end of their course they will have the skills the jobs market requires. If higher education has become a service then poor service must be questioned. Patients sue hospitals for poor medical treatment all the time.

The flipside of demanding student customers is the role of the university in the ‘knowledge economy’. Universities must ensure they offer courses relevant to the market. Not only must students be taught ‘relevant skills’ but they also must study subjects which are deemed ‘relevant’. Relevance, as an organising concept, is not confined to Higher Education. It is applied to many public services such as libraries and museums. It is particularly problematic because knowledge that is not considered relevant to the market it not worth studying.

Michael Gibbons’s paper Higher Education Relevance in the 21st Century, published in 1998 just a year after Sir Ronald Dearing’s report first suggested students pay fees, states “Not only will higher education in the 21st century have to become relevant, but also that relevance will be judged primarily in terms of outputs, the contribution that higher education makes to national economic performance”. The current situation is a consequence of the application of this way of viewing higher education.

As a consequence ‘STEM’ subjects – degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and other skills that underwrite the country’s competitive advantage are useful. Whereas history, literature, philosophy and classics have nothing to offer. Education for its own sake, higher learning simply for the purpose of greater understanding, might make you an interesting dinner party guest but does nothing for the national skills set.

When Plato sat in his cave contemplating the theory of Forms it is unlikely he considered its economic benefit. Yet plato’s ideas survived the destruction of ancient Greece, his Ethics informed Islamic scholars and contributed to the Christian notion of the soul. Aristotelian criticisms of plato informed Thomas Aquinas and resulted in the emergence of Latin Scholasticism, one of the high-points of late medieval thought. The word philosophy is derived from the Greek meaning ‘love of wisdom’ and Greek ideas informed Renaissance Europe’s humanist attack on the religion of the time and Enlightenment thinkers of eighteenth century. This knowledge can not be commodified.

While this does not mean that we should not think about the economic consequences of ideas, if we want to, we should be able to see that some things are important in themselves. Maybe it is time to look again at Forms (the world of ideas) and substance (the world of things) and conclude that teaching skills is not the purpose of university.

There was an obvious opportunity to stand up for the notion of universities as ivory towers for non-relevant learning when Dearing came out with his 1997 report. The response from most academics was to keep their heads down and go along with it. I was working at Sussex University at this time and although there were many meetings to discuss the consequences of the report, the overall mood was one of passive acceptance. The problem universities face may lie within the institutions themselves. Could it be that it’s academics who no longer believe in the value of their own work, the validity of their institutions or the benefit of understanding ideas and their history?

Andrew Croskery finds out the court’s decision next month. Whatever the outcome more cases of this sort are likely to follow. Only a long overdue defence of non-relevant learning by those in the ‘thick of it’ is likely to halt the trend toward more challenges to academic authority.

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