International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Dear Customer, there is no stock exchange for wisdom

Damian Ruth, School of Management, Manawatu, New Zealand


I am tempted to be dismissive: “If you are clever enough to realise you could have taught yourself, how come you can’t figure out what you paid for?” Instead I will take the criticism seriously, for the student has raised the educational question of our time: is education an industry? Beginning with “what were my fees for” I examine the everyday commonplace ways in which education is commodified and what this does to students, educators and institutions. That higher education functions as a means of social stratification and perpetuates injustice is not a novel insight (and of course this not all and only what higher education does) but scrutinising how current everyday expressions and practices link with one another to create a tapestry that articulates social injustice helps us resist. In the face of ‘deliverables’, ‘transferable skills’, ‘learning outcomes’, ‘employability’, the difficulties of offering new courses, the politics of assessment, forms of feedback and other paraphernalia of current higher education practice we see how challenging social injustice in higher education is often a matter of fighting a myriad of seemingly petty battles. The apparently reasonable view that a student who pays fees is in some sense an entitled customer leads to a form of violence in which student, educator, university and host society are all profoundly diminished. Jennifer Case decries education construed in predominantly instrumental and economic terms, but rightly has reservations about Sen’s concept of human flourishing. We cannot assume that students have had a chance to and wish to continue to explore what they value doing in life and we should note how casting the student as customer pre-empts such exploration. McArthur asks if it is possible to reveal and resist the forces that distort our ability to pursue internal integrity and human fulfilment. I try and show how it is possible and how we can in our everyday practice undermine ‘the deal’ and nullify the contract between customer and vending machine. Pace McLean I show how everyday practice in higher education exacerbates initial conditions of inequality and perpetuates the differential access to knowledge and to being heard (epistemic justice), how it obscures how one can ‘get at’ how knowledge is made and distributed (hermeneutic justice) and have a fair share of air time (testimonial justice).


Higher education, commodification of education, student as customer, social justice, wisdom

Link to Full Paper


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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