The Real World

November 2012 The Psychologist, 25 (11), 801.

The other day at one of our Universities — it could be any University — the first year students were electing their class representative. One of the candidates explained why she was standing: "now we are paying £9,000 a year, I think the lecturers should teach what we want, not what they want. And I will let them know when we are unhappy".

Well, no. It is certainly true that we should listen carefully to students, take their concerns seriously and make changes where we are not teaching effectively. If students tell us they don't like the way we teach statistics we have a responsibility to consider how we teach statistics. But if students say they don't like statistics, we don't give up teaching statistics.

Universities are educational establishments, not supermarkets.  Education isn't simply about picking and choosing the products that are to ones taste. It is about learning the things that are necessary to becoming proficient in the discipline.  Taken to present extremes, the consumer model is corrosive not only of educational standards, but for the very idea of education.

But now we have evidence that consumerisation is corrosive for students as well. In two studies presented to the Conference of the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology this September, Stefanie Sonnenberg and colleagues of the University of Portsmouth have shown that, when students are defined as consumers, they express less course satisfaction. Moreover, students who predominantly see themselves as consumers, rather than learners, report lower well-being and are less dedicated to their studies.

There are a number of reasons why this might be so. For instance, the whole consumer agenda has been justified through the idea that academics are feckless, lazy, unconcerned with students and hence need to be brought to heel by the discipline of market — and student — forces. Priming 'consumer' therefore primes this whole whirlpool of dissatisfaction.

But also, it may be that defining people as consumers is profoundly individualising. In the market we operate alone. We are placed in a relationship of opposition and mistrust with sellers (caveat emptor!). We are even placed in competition with other consumers (especially when sales are on).  There is little sense of collectivity, of being in it together, of the mutual social support which flows from this and which so many researchers are now telling us is a critical factor in our well-being.

Indeed, as our own research with others (notably Catherine Haslam, Jolanda Jetten, and Craig Knight), has shown, the importance of preserving and creating a sense of collectivity is particularly critical when people undergo ruptures and transitions in their lives. This work, published in Journal of Neuropsychological Rehabilitation and Ageing and Society, has examined one end of the lifespan — looking, amongst other things, at the process of leaving one’s home to enter a residential care institution. But, equally, recent research by Aarti Iyer published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, gives us reason to believe that forming groups is equally critical at the other end of the lifespan when people first leave their homes to enter University.

As Sonnenberg concludes, her findings show that identity matters. A little word like 'consumer' can do a great deal of harm.