OK, thanks Lizzie …. So what I’d now like to do is offer an articulation of various ‘social and institutional mechanisms’ that help establish ‘a discursive norm’ and a ‘particular worldview’….of the university and more specifically the contemporary student.

1. University in a neoliberal setting

Under the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, the ‘good’ student comes to be viewed as economically self-interested, information-processing, rationally-optimising sovereign chooser of a service provider – Which university shall I take my business too? and, once settled, Which courses shall I grace my presence with? Predicated on the HE sector operating within consumer culture, the notion of individualised choice is central. No matter that it might mean ‘no more chemistry department…no more chemistry graduates…no more chemists! In a neo-liberal culture, the individual is created on the model of entrepreneur and thus we see a proliferation of work placements, internships, courses designed to accommodate part-time ‘real jobs, a focus on guest speakers who not what its really like… and university departments devoted to developing enterprising and entrepreneurial students. Flowing from this……

2. The sovereign consumer

The sovereign consumer ….that, we argue, comes to dominant the form of thinking about, of being, and of acting out the role of student in a marketised HE environment. So potentially powerful is the sovereign consumer – Our data analysis suggests it has become the established way in which individuals interpret (and make sense of) the educational experiences they have. Our informants’ narratives not only reveal the ease and the fluency with which they talk as consumers of HE ..but also that this ‘subject position’ heightens narcissistic satisfactions YET, paradoxically,….. at the same time,……increasing the likelihood of dissatisfaction because a massified and marketised HE sector can not actually deliver on many of the students’ inflated and egocentric need to feel special.

3. Student satisfaction as sovereign – produced and reproduced through institutional structures

The idea of the student at the very heart of higher education’s purpose (just as the customer is king…or queen in more traditional markets) is rooted in recent Government policy following the Browne Review (2011). The student-consumer as homo economicus resides in government bills that require universities to publish more detail about individual courses (including class contact hours, employment rates and average graduate salaries) alongside other performance indicators, Key Information Sets (KIS) and student satisfaction surveys. The economic discourse of neoliberalism provides the broader scaffold for sector-wide acceptance that funds follow student choice of HE institution which, in effect, privileges the least experienced and the yet to be learned. And so, for example, ‘Student-centredness’ has been co-opted to readily align with contemporary managerialism …..Universities need very, very well paid senior management teams to ensure what is delivered is what is wanted by those placed at the centre ……a centre that might once have been occupied by the key tenants of a scholarly discipline…left to academics the fear is that student’s would have to ‘budge over’, have to face up to a reality where they and their personal desires, wishes and anxieties ARE NOT the rasion-detre for the universities existence! More practically…..Institutions develop structures, mechanisms and ‘cultures’ …..often subtle, yet nearly always powerful, that shape the practices of staff and students. It does this through enacting patterns of governance that in turn micromanage the framing of ‘important’ dialogue.

4. Practice as signifier of what really matters

Within this dominant logic in which the university is recast as a service provider, it is not difficult to identify an array of ‘student as sovereign’ signifiers. Many HE institutions now engage in fierce competition for students, expend large promotional and marketing budgets, erect iconic buildings for aesthetic pleasure, and exhibit an insatiable desire for growth in customer, aka student, numbers Further, we see universities seeking to: kite mark/ and Brand themselves…. to gain external accreditation from several organisations in an effort to gain differentiation through positioning statements, to make their offering more ‘saleable’ to potential customers An increasing audit culture (through the QAA and other acrostic rich bodies) loudly proclaims to all stakeholders that what matters most is measurable outputs. This is part of the ‘utilitarian turn’ that shifts our focus from content to counting, those things calculable become credible. Indeed one way we might appreciate ubiquitous notions of ‘continuous quality improvement’ is as a form of institutionalised appeals to the ego via self-audit Institutional league table positions caused by decimal point fluctuations are celebrated (or cause mild panic), outsourcing becomes normalized with scant attention paid to the idea of ‘universal’ universities Student friendly spaces (aesthetics for young people) and easy access information are afforded more budget than books and staff accommodation Additional market mechanisms such as student charters, the development of university compliance with consumer law increasing student ability to trigger quality review The increasing prevalence of these mechanisms and everyday practices reveals a sector-wide valorization of the student consumer, their service experience and their satisfaction Above all, marketization enshrines the satisfaction of the sovereign student as a legitimate and central imperative of the marketized HE institution. …It increases the pressure to be seen to be responsive to student desires, wants and ‘needs’, despite the insight that seeking the ‘satisfaction’ of the learner extinguishes intellectual development engendered through challenge, struggle and problem-solving (see for example Furedi 2011). Rather, we see satisfaction measurement mania (ironically itself a potential cause of student dissatisfaction….’oh no, please no more ****** surveys to complete!) in which scores are endlessly sought, captured, codified and used to assist staff performance management. Timetables are designed to be ‘student friendly’; modules and assignments must only ever be clear; a plethora of HE institutions running marketing campaigns with headlines such as ‘you said it, we did it’. As ‘frontline service workers’, many academics have become accustomed to having to consider ‘how the student body might react’ to your particular teaching style and the substance of your classes, to concern ourselves with retaining students and thus prioritisig their contentment. Grade grubbing is to be shrugged at and ‘rate your professor’ websites to be avoided – or worse still used for schadenfreude purposes…when it’s a colleague (and not you) being slagged off! Regulations are redrafted to ensure absolute fairness where, at least sometimes, fair equates to being ‘in favour of students’! Talking students ‘up’ at exam boards, passively accepting grade inflation and remembering to respond to all student email messages (no matter how daft they might be) in a set number of days. …Such practices demonstrate HE institutions’ intention to show where sovereignty now resides. As a result we are witnessing a form of asymmetric relations where it is all about what the university can offer, and how well academic and administrative staff respond, to the student consumer.

5. Implications of all this?

Conceptualising the subject as produced by all of these instruments and cultural signposting allows us to see how relations of power shape students’ understanding of themselves (Foucault 1980). The dominant neoliberal discourse of the student as rational economic consumer constructs the student subject as simultaneously required to make themselves, whilst heavily regulating the kinds of ‘self’ that can be made. Of course, student subjectivities are never fixed but played out within the complex ensembles and discursive flows that produce a multiplicity of subject positions, including ways of behaving that are always liable to change according to the circumstances. Even the current dominance of a neoliberal discourse enacts the ‘student-as-consumer’ as one possible subject position among many. What we now turn to is our attempts to gain a nuanced understanding of the student-as-consumer through an interpretation of the affective dimension of students’ own narratives.

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Is a senior lecturer in marketing communications at Bournemouth University. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics on the meanings that consumers ascribe to their consumer and political choice practices. His research to date has focused on advertising, consumer choice and how consumer culture and civic culture inter-relate. He has published in a range of international journals including Advances in Consumer Research, European Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Marketing Management.

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Faculty of Media & Communication, Bournemouth University