Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can't Be Bought

By Evans, Mary | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, January 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can't Be Bought


Evans, Mary, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can't Be Bought. By Joanna Williams. Bloomsbury Academic. 208pp, Pounds 24.99. ISBN 9781441183606. Published 17 January 2013

Among the many processes that are said to define contemporary English universities are those of commercialisation, bureaucratisation, infantilisation and marketisation. To this list Joanna Williams adds another, that of consumerisation. In each instance, there are cases (invariably negative) to be made for the changes that are said to have overtaken English higher education in recent decades. Late last year, the Council for the Defence of British Universities was launched with the aim of contesting many of the practices being advocated, or instituted, within the academy.

But in all cases, and whatever the origin of the critique of current policy about higher education, central questions about the past and the future often go unaddressed. Williams, and indeed other commentators, presents us with evidence of various forms of questionable practice today, but in constructing and reading these catalogues of absurdity, there is often more than a whiff of nostalgia over the departure from a state that, if not quite a golden age, was at least a more acceptable past. Many of the critics of today's universities were formed by and in that culture, and it is perhaps naive not to recognise the impact of that experience, in which many things actually were quite different.

Thus in making that connection, we might have to think about what we are defending about ourselves, every bit as much as the universities that we attended. This responsibility requires, it seems to me, a quite extraordinary degree of self-control in the face of overblown mission statements; pointless competition and the deliberate encouragement of the "neurosis of small difference"; lectures to first-year students about "employment" skills; the widespread casualisation of teaching; and of course, the regimes of regulation that make nonsense of the term "consumer". (Very few consumers, students please note, have to eat the dinner they ordered.)

The case against these changes in higher education, which Williams here supplies vividly, is not difficult to make, even if some of the snapshots of evidence she supplies might well have benefited from including the next frame in the film. (For example, those parents anxiously taking leave of their children at the start of their first year are in fact the same furious parents seen at the end of the year chasing missing offspring who have apparently disappeared, leaving behind little more than various forms of compost.)

But in providing these vignettes - and all universities are replete with them - there is still a need to consider what universities should be for without falling back into all those comfortable assumptions about what we have lost. At the same time, we might also consider, rather more fully than simply supplying accounts of one aspect of change, some of those connections between universities and their social world.

In doing this, we might turn to the eloquent account of what universities should be doing that has been provided by Lord Rees of Ludlow and his colleagues at the CDBU. …

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