Reimagining the higher education student: An introduction

Rachel Brooks and Sarah O’Shea

The value of exploring constructions of students

Over the last 30 years, higher education systems across the world have massified and, as a result, the student body has become increasingly diverse. While there has been some important work that has highlighted how the heterogeneity of this population has affected the learner identities taken up by students (e.g. Reay ct al., 2010) - often related closely to their social characteristics and institutional settings - we still know relatively little about how students themselves understand their identity as students, and how they are constructed by other social actors. Reimagining the Higher Education Student brings together research from an international group of scholars to assess critically and, in some cases, challenge pervasive understandings of students, including how they arc imagined through dominant discourses and policies. With contributions from East Asia, Australia and Europe that span disciplines and fields, the book offers timely insights into the nature of the higher education student experience and provides a better understanding of what students may desire from their higher education participation.

In this introductory chapter, we discuss some of the dominant constructions of students that have been addressed by recent scholarship. This overview is, however, necessarily selective, and there are various other understandings of students that we have had to omit. We then briefly outline how the chapters in this book contribute to and extend this body of work.

Dominant constructions of the higher education student

Students as learners

In much of the literature, within education and other cognate disciplines, it is often assumed that students are first and foremost learners. There is clearly a substantial amount of research devoted to enhancing the teaching and learning that takes place within higher education institutions, typically underpinned by the belief that this is the primary function of the sector. However, over recent years, some scholars have suggested that the place of learning has been usurped by other priorities and considerations, often linked to broader debates about the marketisation of higher education in many parts of the world. Writing with respect to Europe, for example, Moutsios (2013) has contended that, as a result of reforms across the continent over the late 20th century and start of the 21st century, students have come to be understood as consumers rather than learners. Some researchers have suggested that a shift to more highly marketised systems, particularly those in which students pay fees, has had a direct impact on how the process of learning is understood by both students and staff. Molesworth et al. (2009), examining developments in the UK, have argued that students have come to conceptualise learning in highly transactional terms - as a product to be bought, rather than a process that requires a considerable amount of effort on their part and that might, in places, be difficult and challenging. In such analyses, the previously dominant construction of student as learner is seen to have come under significant pressure through the reconfiguration of the higher education sector along market lines.

Nevertheless, as we will discuss further below, other studies have shown how such arguments are not played out in all contexts. Some students may actively reject their construction as consumers or customers on the basis that it undermines their commitment to learning as a two-way process, requiring considerable responsibility on both sides (Tomlinson, 2017). Indeed, research conducted by Brooks and Abrahams (2020) across six European nations has indicated that ‘learner’ was central to the identities of many students in a wide variety of different national and institutional contexts. Their participants spoke, for example, of the ways in which they believed the academic subjects they were studying had come to define them, and how they valued highly the more open-ended approach to learning that they had encountered within higher education, contrasting this with the less flexible and more prescribed approach they felt had been required at school. They also emphasised strongly the hard work that they had had to put in to their studies, seeing this often as closely allied to their learner identity.

Students as consumers

As we have already mentioned, over recent years, various scholars - as well as a range of social commentators - have asserted that students should be understood less as learners and more as consumers. Typically such arguments arc advanced as part of a critique of the neo-liberalisation of the higher education sector. In countries such as Australia, the US and the UK, high fees are often seen to have inculcated more consumerist behaviour on the part of students and led to their clear positioning as consumers by both higher education institutions and policymakers. This has been brought into sharp relief in the UK by the government’s encouragement of students unhappy with their degree programme to seek redress through the Competition and Markets Authority - a governmental body that ensures that ‘consumers get a good deal when buying goods and services HE, and businesses operate within the law’ (CMA, 2020, n.p.). In countries in which fees are cither not payable by higher education students or have been kept at a low level (such as across much of mainland Europe), similar arguments about the emergence of new forms of student identity are nevertheless advanced, suggesting that the widespread introduction of principles of new public management (even if payment has not shifted to the individual) has had a similar effect of encouraging a broad range of higher education stakeholders to view students as consumers of an educational product (Kwiek, 2018; Moutsios, 2013).

There is now, however, an emerging body of work that questions some of these assumptions and provides a more nuanced account of the impact of market mechanisms within higher education. Research conducted in the UK by Tomlinson (2017), for example, has shown that while some students have embraced a consumer identity that informs their approach to their studies, a considerable number of their peers actively reject this construction on the grounds that it fails to recognise the effort they themselves put into their learning and has the potential to undermine their relationships with lecturers. A third group of students in Tomlinson’s research held more ambivalent positions: they had internalised the discourse of student rights but still distanced themselves from the position of the consumer. While they believed that they were increasingly important stakeholders, with considerable bargaining power, they also acknowledged that they had personal responsibility for their learning. Similarly, cross-national research has indicated that relatively few students readily identify as consumers. Brooks and Abrahams (2020), for example, contend that of the six nations in their research -Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain - it was only in Spain that students constructed themselves as consumers. Here, however, this was not an understanding that they embraced; rather, they believed that it had been foisted upon them by government policy and institutional practices. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in numerous ways the Spanish higher education system is less marketised than that of many other countries in Europe (Lazetic, 2019). In seeking to explain the distinctiveness of the Spanish responses, Brooks and Abrahams (2020) maintain that the stage of marketisation is significant. There may, for example, be heightened sensitivity and resistance to such ideas because they are relatively new and not yet firmly established in all parts of the higher education system. Moreover, the combination of relatively high fees payable by many Spanish students and widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of education received (evident in Spain but not elsewhere) may have caused more students to question the basis for fees (i.e. a consumerist system, in which higher education is understood, at least partially, as an individual good) than in nations where students are generally happy with the education they arc receiving. Research has suggested that constructions may differ at the institutional level, too, with higher status and more financially secure universities better able to insulate themselves from the pressures of marketisation and thus protect their students from being positioned as consumers (Naidoo ct al., 2011).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >