Students, consumers, and failed gym memberships

The student-as-consumer is a problem. They’re a problem because they don’t actually make sense. They don’t pop down to their local uni and pick up an undergraduate degree, a box of eggs and a loaf of bread. They don’t save up for months to buy the latest new release from the Russell Group. They can’t take their degree back to the shop if it doesn’t quite make them look as good as they thought it was going to.

Arguably they buy into a service, but of the gym membership sort, not a mobile phone contract. The student-as-consumer, like the well-meaning gym recruit, sign ups, pays their memberships fees (/takes out a loan to cover them for the time being). They might fork out more to go to a particularly renowned gym, one with the best instructors and some famous old members. But if they don’t put in the work they’ll get to the end of their three year membership and realise they still can’t get into those skinny jeans, or get onto that impressive grad scheme.

The problem with the student-as-consumer is that while it’s a nice metaphor, it sugarcoats what’s actually going on with our universities with a catch-all title that doesn’t actually catch-all. It might nicely frame students choosing which university to study at, and which degree scheme to study on, but it doesn’t explain why they feel the need to go to university in the first place.

It might suggest why students are expecting more from their courses and lecturers, but it doesn’t explain if and why they’d choose market tactics like individual complaints over more democratic routes such as collective lobbying through student representatives.

And it might explain why students leave university with so much debt, but it doesn’t explain how they perceive that debt, or if they think of their tuition fee debts through a different mindset to their bank debts and student overdrafts.

But – most importantly – it doesn’t tell us anything about the type of citizens universities are producing once they stop being students-as-consumers and become graduates-as-debtors.

It’s these gaps in the consumer metaphor I want to explore in my PhD research. Five weeks in, they still seem pretty fathomless, but I’ve already got an idea of what I’ll find holding up the student-as-consumer:  the neoliberal student. Watch this space.

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