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Students as consumers: the commercialisation of higher education in the United States of America

Published on May 31, 2010 by: in: Society

Howard Gardner perceives the university as a cross-eyed beast, which has one eye focused on financial issues and the other on the expectations of the students.


In 1972 the Journal of Higher Education published an article in which the author wrote: “It doesn’t matter what it’s called, who’s doing it or where in the institution – it’s already happened: universities have entered the marketplace.” Then, as David L. Kirp notes, the majority of people involved in academia perceived the assertion as heresy.

They perceived themselves as members of an academic community who pass their thoughts on to subsequent generations, not as peddlers of knowledge. Thirty years ago the connection between business and higher education was seen as a necessary evil. Nowadays, in spite of the voices of protest against the introduction of managerialism to the running of post-secondary institutions and increased cooperation between the business sector and universities, the commercialisation of higher education is a fact. In the last two decades a great deal of space has been devoted to this phenomenon in the literature on the subject and in the media. In this article I would like to present the views of specialists in this subject, and I will also attempt to reconstruct the ongoing debate, especially in the US, where this discussion has been going on for over 30 years.

The shopping mall of education

In the context of the commercialisation of universities and colleges, it seems the most important thing is clear, defined and specified goals. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, notes the following in his publication “Universities in the marketplace”: “if the goals are unclear, then the university may focus solely on earning money, while forgetting about the fundamental purpose of the university.” A similar position is presented by Howard Gardner, who states that the college or university should speak openly about its central mission, and that people responsible for the institution must be faithful to this mission, just as a doctor is faithful to the Hippocratic Oath. Apart from this, a crucial role is played by clearly defined goals of education. These days, as D. Kirp states, the priorities of a university are largely determined not by the academic leaders, but by the administration big shots.

In this brave new academic world, in which a sort of commercialised newspeak has been created, every individual is called a revenue center, every group of people is a stakeholder, every student is a customer, every professor is an entrepreneur, and every institution is seen as a seeker of profit – whether in the form of money or in the form of human capital. At the same time, Kirp notes that what is referred to as enrolment is nothing more than marketing strategy. With the aim of gaining new students (customers?), universities spend millions of dollars on promotion, and the university itself needs to become a brand.

In 2002 a hacking incident involving Yale University’s web site and employees of the Princeton University admissions  office was widely discussed in the American media. Another example is the “disease” of the rankings. The higher the position that the university occupies, the more its brand is recognisable. When we enter a record store, we also see rankings of the most frequently bought CD’s, computer games, etc. Therefore the ranking of universities has a dimension of pure consumerism. It is supposed to say to the potential customer: “buy me, because other people did.” The task of institutions of higher learning, in the opinion of many researchers, is not only to attract the customer (student?), but also to make them satisfied. In his book, “Consuming Life”, Zygmunt Bauman writes: “the ultimate destiny of all the goods on sale is consumption by those buying them, Secondly, the people buying them will want to acquire the consumer goods only if the consumption of them brings with it the promise of fulfilling their needs.

Thirdly, the price that a potential customer in search of fulfilment is willing to pay for the offered goods will depend on the credibility of this promise and on the intensiveness of his or her needs.”

We live in a consumer society, so it is hardly surprising that even universities, or rather university education has begun to be perceived in terms of commodities. Nor should it be surprising that the trends towards opening higher education up to market forces are so strong.

It would be strange if the “consumed” (to use the term proposed by Benjamin Barber) did not want to consume education. Ronald Barnett, for instance, compared universities to shopping malls, at the same time noting that universities have become a place of the sacred and profane. Moreover, this comparison also presents another phenomenon which occurs at modern universities – appealing to the masses. Shopping malls offer what customers desire. And more and more often that is what universities are doing. Kirp notes that a sign of this might be the phenomenon of grade inflation – this also (or perhaps especially) affects Ivy League universities such as Harvard University. “The ‘gentleman’s C’,” writes Kirp, “has morphed into a B.”

In this context, Howard Gardner perceives the university as a cross-eyed beast, which has one eye focused on financial issues and the other on the expectations of the students. Such an attitude needs to be corrected. It is getting more and more difficult to tell a university apart from a business, hence the former is losing its raison d’être. For this reason, according to Gardner, universities must take a long hard look at their educational mission.

The dialogue between learning and business

Of course there have been many opponents of commercialisation who are mostly afraid of money being the determining factor in the decision-making process and of market needs making the decisions, instead of scholars. The greatest criticism concerns the expansion of bureaucracy and also results from the fact that many people and institutions want to run universities as if they were large corporations. Here it is worth paying attention to the basic differences between a university and a factory (company), following the considerations of Derek Bok. Firstly, there is no strong stimulus, especially in the field of administration; every dollar saved is allocated to education and scholarly research.

Secondly, the main task of universities is education and conducting scholarly research, therefore the intellectual leaders play a greater role than classical managers. Last but not least, a university does not earn any money, and even if it does, in comparison to large companies it is not very much. Apart from that, if it so happens that there is no demand for a certain academic subject, it cannot be discarded from the programme. In any case, this would be a disastrous solution. Such subjects might include ancient Greek or Latin, to name two examples. The usefulness of these two languages in the modern world appears to be limited and there are very few students who wish to learn them. From the viewpoint of the market mechanism, these subjects should be discarded immediately, as H. Gardner notes.

He goes on to write that you should not decide whether there should be a place for a given subject at a university by evaluating its worth only in market terms. After all, we are dealing with “knowledge, and not with endangered species.” Beginning in the 80’s, business started to be connected with scholarly research. Not everybody was happy with the growing role of industry in academic research. It was feared that universities would not disclose the results of studies in order to attract financial supporters. Corruption was also feared. The introduction of the world of business to universities caused other problems to appear – in the matter of research confidentiality or conflicts of interest.

Companies which support scientific studies do not want their results to leak out to the competition for obvious reasons. This is why the majority of these companies forbid universities to discuss how research is progressing at scientific conferences, for instance. Some professors, in accordance with the contracts signed with their sponsors, have had to limit their colleagues’ and students’ access to laboratories. This slows down the flow of information and ideas, which guarantee the development of research work. One in five professors admitted that the publication of their research results had been delayed by more than six months. Admittedly, universities are finally receiving research materials, but companies often stipulate that they must be kept far from scientists who have contracts with other competing companies. In connection with this, as D. Bok notes, “we are further and further from the ideal, in which groups of scientists would share their observations and materials for the sake of science.” Universities and academic knowledge serve the public good, however, as P. Altbach notes, since the market has entered university campuses, society’s attitude towards higher learning has changed and at present academic knowledge is perceived as “the private good” of those who either study or carry out research. In accordance with this view, education – in Altbach’s opinion – should be paid for, just like any other service. Knowledge thus becomes another item in a commercial transaction.

Let’s move on to the fundamental issue. Is a student a customer and/or consumer? I will take the liberty of comparing education to a carrot. When we go to the local market with the aim of buying a carrot, we generally pick the nice-looking ones with no sign of rot. This is because we know (having seen what good-quality carrots look like many times before) that buying a rotten carrot will not bring us any good, and we will only be wasting money, not investing it rationally. Putting it in a very simplified way, you might say that customers at a farmer’s market are experts in high-value carrots, in other words those that are fit to eat.

Are they therefore also experts in the subject areas of the lectures, seminars and tutorials they attend? While choosing their program of studies, are they experts in this field? Rather not, otherwise what on earth would they be choosing it for? Indeed, you might assume that modern students have become more demanding because there is so much competition, caused by the increased demand for education – for this reason you cannot call them customers. Students would be customers if they were capable of evaluating what the university has to offer. They are not, however, able to perform this evaluation, because they do not possess enough knowledge for this. Students become customers when they evaluate a university in terms of its facilities: comfortable chairs, a sufficient number parking spaces, the nice lady in the admissions office, good access to the required publications, etc. However, they are not customers when they attend classes.

They are not able to judge a subject on its own merits, for they would have to be experts in the particular field. Therefore, at best they can appraise whether the lecturer has clearly explained the pass conditions, whether she speaks clearly, whether her classes are dynamic and interesting, how she is dressed and so on. So then, students cannot be customers with full rights. They demonstrate some of the features of a customer, but that is not what they are. J.E. Groccia uses the term TQM (Total Quality Management) in order to describe the phenomenon of student satisfaction. The motto of TQM runs: “The customer is always right.”

Groccia claims: “In many aspects the students are customers. They are customers because they have a binding contract for goods and services, and also for the possibility of studying in an organisation which, operating like a business, sells the opportunity to study. According to the contract, students have the chance to express their needs, expectations and satisfaction in connection with the university environment, and their voices should be heard.” However, later the author emphasises that students are just as much students as they are customers, and in this respect the slogan, “the customer is always right,” is inappropriate. The main reason for going to university, Groccia believes, is to broaden one’s mind, so as to be better prepared for the world of tomorrow. If students remain at university simply to maintain their status quo, they will pay a very high price indeed. By dropping out of university, students cannot have the same level of knowledge they had before they enrolled at it.

Groccia also claims that university students, if they are involved in the construction of knowledge, are not customers but producers. “Learning is a direct consequence of students’ efforts, more rarely is it a purchased service.” If the principle “the customer is always right” cannot be used with reference to students, this in no way means that students have no right to expect a high level of education from the university. A similar view is represented in the New York Times by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a retired president and professor of George Washington University.

He notes that students invest time and money in the development of their minds. Universities which are not up to this task might not survive. In Trachtenberg’s opinion, it is important to ensure high-quality teaching, but this is only possible when academic instructors dedicate themselves both to conducting research and to didactics. He also emphasises the importance of communication between professors and students. The point is that they should devote more time to their students, for this is exactly what their students expect. This is why few representatives of the academic world like to call students customers, for customers have expectations. In turn, David Bejou, the dean of the School of Business and Economics at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, claims that students are not perceived as customers, but as products and that they are treated like cash cows.

In the on-going debate in the American media on the one hand you can hear voices saying that indeed universities and other centres of higher learning have become subject to the game of the marketplace. Many American professors believe that higher education has become a huge machine for driving economic development. On the other hand however, these same academics think (a bit sentimentally) that institutions of higher learning are not just businesses. They take the position that above all their job is the intellectual development of the individual (some amend this to include moral development). Also raised in this debate is the issue of tuition, which has been trending upwards (in the US, regardless of whether a university is public or private, students pay tuition fees). However, I will focus on the controversy surrounding payment for education in the US in my next article.

You cannot outline all the possible scenarios for further development of higher education in the era of commercialisation. Universities have always had to negotiate the shape of reality with various entities – in the beginning it was the church, then monarchs and finally the state. Now, perhaps, they have entered into dialogue with the world of business.

Photo comes from: , is taken by laffy4k , who issued it on CC license.

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About Daria Hejwosz

Phd at educational studies faculty on Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan/Poland. She writes mainly about higher education

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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