The customer is always right? Why the marketization of universities poses a danger to us all.

By Anonymous contributor.

Since embarking on my PhD, I’ve worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA). Whilst I find it both interesting and rewarding to run classes and listen to student’s opinions, the position has proved to be increasingly challenging and wearing throughout the year. The following two quotes are an example of the typical types of conversations I have had with students throughout the year:

Student 1: I just wondered how I can get a first in my next essay?

Me: Well, did you read over my comments on your essay?

Student 2: No. But I really need to get a first.

Me: Ok…well…I think you should read the comments on the essay first.


Student 2: The brief wasn’t clear enough. It didn’t give us clear enough directions.

Me: Oh, right…I mean…it is a brief so it is only meant to be a general outline for what you were supposed to do.

Student 2: Yes, I know that, but I’m technically a customer …so there should have been more.  

The first time I had this type of conversation, I suppressed a laugh and awkwardly turned away to face my computer. Once my office hours were finished, I informed my friend and fellow PhD-student/Graduate Teaching Assistant about what I had just heard, expecting them to react in a similar manner to myself. Instead, they briefly raised their eyebrows and said with a tight smile: “oh yeah, you’ll get that a lot. It’s the student fees. They are technically buying a degree these days.” Despite this, I was determined to think optimistically and to consider the conversation a one-off; surely, the majority of students do not act this way? However, after having several similar conversations with students – including a personal favourite in which a student told me that they “couldn’t be bothered” to attend my seminars and then asked me to write them an essay plan in the next breath – I began to feel increasingly pessimistic about my relationship with my students.

Alongside these somewhat depressing conversations, there is the knowledge amongst GTA’s that we are to expect countless emails from undergraduate demanding answers to questions that go above and beyond our job description of “facilitator of discussion”  such as: “can you look over this essay plan and mark it for me ASAP?” or “can you count my references in this essay and tell me if I have enough?” Alongside the amount of these types of questions exceeding our job description’s responsibilities, they go far beyond the pay: as a GTA, I earn £280 per month – working out at £23 per seminar and excluding preparation for classes, time spent with students outside of class and answering a constant flood of emails over the weekend.  Once, a student asked how much I earned per year, when I asked them to guess they replied with a confident “26,000?” If anything, this is demonstrative of how the amount of effort that GTA’s are expected to put into their role goes above and beyond their pay package, which barely allows one to survive month to month; myself and many of my colleagues have had to pick up second or even third jobs alongside our PhD’s in order to get by.

Whilst there are still many hard-working and passionate students, the stories from my fellow GTA’s regarding their nightmare students are countless. For example, a close friend of mine often tells the story of when a student came to his office hours with 2 completed essays for him to read and to “give him a grade on the spot.” During the session, my friend fell off his chair and cried out in pain yet the student didn’t flinch his eyes away from his work and simply asked: “so, a 62 yeah?” Likewise, my personal favourite incident occurred when I was running and felt a strong tug at my arm. I whizzed round, music blaring through my headphones and sweat dribbling down my face, to face a student who was rapidly talking at me about her essay. On this occasion, I listened politely and then asked her to visit me in my office hours where I would be of more use…it was only with the benefit of hindsight that I questioned the appropriateness of physically tugging your seminar tutor’s arm whilst they are out jogging.

It is important to note that I am more than happy to assist students who are willing to learn and to work independently, as is the intended nature of an undergraduate degree. If pre-arranged, I will occasionally meet students to answer questions regarding essays that they are struggling with and give them advice on the best sources to look into. However, it is not my responsibility to provide a 24/7 helpline to students who do not wish to make an effort themselves, who do not attend seminars or do the recommended reading – or worse – attend seminars and then blatantly use their iPhone the entire way through whilst sat at the desk in front of me.

As an individual who has spent the last four years in higher education – starting my undergraduate degree in 2011 and my PhD in 2015 – I cannot help but notice this swift and significant change in students from when I was an undergraduate; myself and many of my peers were nervous and eager-to-please, I like to think that we did not possess the same sense of ownership and entitlement towards academic staff. In my view, this change correlates with the implementation of the £9,000 per year fees; many students feel the weight of this debt upon their shoulders from day one of their degree. The looming pressure to achieve that all-important 2:1 degree so that they can get out, get a job and make those fees “worth it” is immense. Of course, when you invest this amount of money into something, you expect a high-standard of service in return. The problem that exists is that manly students are currently not motivated by their own initiative to study and instead carry their badge of the “customer” as a hall-pass to entitlement.

In other words, the marketization of universities has meant that higher education institutions have become like shops but with a difference. Now, students – sorry, customers – simply want to pay for their goods at the checkout and have the staff choose the products, bag them up and carry it all home for them. This is not their fault; the suffocating fear of debt and the brutal competitiveness of the job market is fierce enough to engulf students throughout their time at university, meaning that they are constantly asking themselves the following question: what am I going to get out of this degree?

Within this context, how are institutions supposed to broaden the minds of undergraduates and create world-leading research when its students are crippled by the fear of “only getting a 2:2”? In this sense, the rising fees have created a monster for universities; rather than gaining the ability to motivate oneself to independently research, students anticipate that their £9,000 fees act as a golden ticket to a guaranteed 2:1 and round-the-clock access to university staff. Whilst some may argue that this is a problem for university institutions alone, these blurring lines between acting as a customer and a student do not bode well for wider society; entitled and self-important graduates become entitled and self-important citizens. Thus, in 2016, consumerism is the wolf at the door of academia and the altruistic principles in which it is supposed to stand for.