From students to customers – neoliberalism and the UK teaching landscape

It is official: Sociology is a ‘low-cost’, ‘non-priority’ discipline, the government says.

It is now clear that the cuts on higher education included in the Comprehensive Spending Review are going to hit harder the disciplines that have been put under these headings (i.e. arts, humanities and social science). In short, if the government proposal to remove statutory funding to ‘secondary’ and supposedly ‘cheap’ subjects becomes reality, there will be a remarkable increase in the tuition fees for the students intending to study, say, Sociology.

On the one hand of this argument certainly stands a general line of criticism on the commonsense mantra that science-based subjects are more important than others to the economy of the country (and are therefore worth a higher level of government investment). But there are further implications on the government’s rash decisions. Crucially, the cuts could instil a transformation of the teaching landscape, by introducing a new(-liberal) approach to higher education revolving around the rather disturbing idea of ‘customer-students’. If students in the ‘low-cost’ disciplines will have to pay much higher fees than their colleagues in other fields, then they could start rising their level of expectation on the ‘product’ (knowledge, that is) they choose to purchase.

On the positive side, students could certainly start taking their studies more seriously. However, there is a wide range of negative effects and attitudes that could lure into the education system if study starts to be regarded purely as a form of consumption. For example, the students-teachers relationship could be affected – and transformed into a customer/service-provider rapport. Moreover, a further risk could be that humanities, arts and social science subjects may increasingly end up being squeezed out from smaller and less-funded institutions which cannot afford their (financial and human) costs.


Categories: Higher Education

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  1. He added that while much remained uncertain, he expected that the survival of humanities subjects would depend “enormously” on individual institutions’ missions, as well as their future funding.
    “One thing that could happen is that humanities subjects emigrate further and further ‘up the food chain’, leading a thriving existence in high-prestige research institutions but getting squeezed out in smaller, more regional and less well-funded institutions,”

    That looks like the likely scenario, I think.

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