Wednesday, August 23, 2006

next customer please

in response to, and in conjunction with minifig's post of 23rd august - from Prof. John Sutherland's guardian column, from way back when i was a student.

i would like to make one thing clear before i start - i'm on his side.

Next customer please

The consumerisation of higher education means the traditional relationship between lecturer and student has been irrevocably eroded, writes John Sutherland

Friday March 5, 2004

A student (American, high-fee-paying) has not realised that he has - as my 'tutee' - to introduce himself and write a couple of essays for me this term. He emails me (weeks late and out of the blue) to say that he has a couple of spare hours, later in the week, when it will be quite convenient (for him) to see me. My convenience? Forget it. Reply ASAP, he implies; his time is valuable.

Another tutorial student (English, very bright, likely to do well in her finals) emails me about the essay I have set her to write on Chaucer and Boece (Chaucer's prose translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy - a standard topic):

I'm writing because I'm a little confused as to what I'm actually supposed to do for my essay on "Chaucer's Allegorical Description of Philosophy in Boethius". I'm obviously not going to read the whole Boece as it is long, laborious and even more boring than most of Chaucer.

"Even more boring than most of Chaucer"? So much for what you've spent most of your professional life doing, Sutherland, is boring, boring, boring. And don't 'you' tell me what to read. Or what to write. Who do you think you are?

A third student (English, first-year) who has yet to turn up (six weeks into term) for a tutorial, or write an essay, or apologise for the delay in delivery, and who - facially - I don't know from Adam - writes:

Dear John, I can't quite understand what I'm to write in the essay you set about Wordsworth's revision of the Prelude ...

"Dear 'John' - what is this, an AA group?

I feel like replying to student 1: Sod your convenience, lad. I'm the professor here; to student; 2: My God, if the greatest poets in the English language "bore" you, go off and do Beckhamology in the media studies programme at wherever; and to student 3: feel free to call me Professor or Doctor Sutherland, won't you? And I'll feel free call you Mr Find Yourself Another Tutor, You Insolent Puppy. I don't of course reply any of those things. I merely seethe.

Sniffy, I know. And who, after all, do I think I am? Well: I occupy a Privy Council Chair of English Literature. Hard won, I have to say. A small heap, but I'm on top. Can't I expect, if not obsequiousness (and God knows I wouldn't turn that down nowadays) some modest formality of address? As it is, these students treat me as if I was going 10-pin bowling with them that night and they were not sure they wanted my company. Whatever happened to deference? The same thing, I suppose, that happened to spats, sock suspenders, and furled brollies. Things of the past.

It was, of course, different "in my day" (the day of the furled brolly, that is). I would, as an undergraduate, no more have taken that familiar tone with the head of my department (the austere Prof, Arthur Humphreys) than I would have knocked a policeman's hat off and piddled in it before handing it back. And as for calling Chaucer "boring" I would have thought it philistine to think such a thing and suicidal to utter it to the teacher who was grading my essays and marking my final exams.

Why aren't students polite any more? Why are they so lacking in politesse as to verge on downright rude? Is it me? I don't think so. I explain at the outset to tutorial students that I'm not their therapist, their buddy, their counsellor but their teacher. That's 'all' I do. The success or failure of our relationship is dependent purely on whether they write better essays at the end of the year. And, in my view, teaching works best if you observe your respective roles. With the stress on "respect".

Every Victorian thinker would recognise immediately what has intervened to corrode the old hierarchical role-relationship between staff and student: cash nexus. It used to be that one "gave" tutorials, lectures, and seminars. Students "took" them. Now teaching is "sold". Students "buy" it. They are, in short, customers in a marketplace. Higher education - thanks to fees - is "customerised" [sic].

Nowadays, especially when I get emails like the above, I think of that scene in the movie Falling Down where D-fens (Michael Douglas) goes into a fast food franchise outlet, asks for breakfast, and is told he is too late. The witching hour is past. Lunch only. D-fens pulls out an Uzi and asks, quizzically, "Are you aware of the expression, 'the customer is always right?' Well, I'm the customer, and I want breakfast". Or a tutorial, or a seminar, or a lecture.

My students don't pull guns on me. But I feel that they are now calling the tune because they are, so expensively, paying the piper. This year's intake can expect to graduate with an average debt of £20K plus. It changes things. Less so for me, perhaps. I'm the senior member of my department (the Lord Muck Professor, etc) and professionally untouchable (so long as I don't touch a student unprofessionally). Colleagues beginning their career will, probably, be warier and less crotchety than I can afford to be. The customer is not only always right: so right, they can get you fired. Them fired, I mean. Me they merely annoy.

Customerisation is advocated in the business world because it focuses the commercial mind. Railway announcements, nowadays, address not "passengers" but "customers" (typically to apologise for the non-departure of the 9:05). Restaurants and pubs do not have "patrons" (politely requested not to drop fag-ends in the urinals) but "customers". And university teachers do not have students - they too have customers. It not only sharpens minds, but relationships.

Customerisation in the university has, as I observe it, three malign consequences. Most damagingly it corrodes truth in judgment - marking, that is. When you're "John" (as opposed to Professor X), and a "service provider" it's that much harder to give an honest low mark (let alone flunk someone). You need protocol for the same reason that a judge in court has a wig and gown (and, in the good old days, a black hat in his chambers).

The second malign consequence is more insidious. You can't "marketise" one sector of higher education (student fees, for example) without, eventually, marketising the whole system. Already, as I observe, academics are stirring uneasily thinking: if the students are paying so much, why am I being paid so little? Why should I be 'giving' a service (for less than its economic value) when they are paying full whack for it? In the very near future there will be either rebellion or wholesale demoralisation among university teachers.

The third malign consequence is that marketisation and customerisation takes all the pleasure out of teaching. "Next customer, please". No fun in that.


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