Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Constructing the student consumer

No one could have predicted the oil shocks, the OECD conference concluded, but universities, they felt, really should have done something about their public image. Perhaps, at the root, it was just a public relations problem? Was it time for universities to consider commercial-styled solutions to a crisis in public relations?  It was on the basis of this sort of logic I assume (no records survive) that the University of Sydney chose, around 1980, to start advertising to attract students. This move was certainly a result of increased competition for fewer students across higher education in Australia. There had never been so many universities in Australia before. The last of the new universities planned during the period of expansion were being built at exactly the wrong time, when the oil crisis crunched public spending just as the baby boomers finished university. None of these things entirely explained the decline in student numbers however, as universities noted that a smaller percentage (not just total numbers) of school-leavers were electing to study at university: a university degree no longer carried the guarantees it once had. Moreover, complaints about “irrelevance” made by student movements in the 1960s and 1970s were now echoed in the language of employer groups who claimed a university degree did little to prepare students for the “real” world.

The older universities in Australia had seen poverty before, but over the previous 20 years had become accustomed to growth. As the “steady state” identified in the 1970s looked like a funding decline in the 1980s, Sydney University chose to use advertising to highlight its advantages of age and reputation over the newer universities. Members of other universities across the sector were outraged: it was a breach of faith, a betrayal of principles. One year later most of them did it too. By 1982, advertising to attract students was described as “commonplace”.

Leaders in the universities all knew the implications of this. Their members warned that “selling themselves like soap powder” would devalue the important work universities do. It was openly acknowledged that, once advertising was employed to attract students, a marketplace was established that positioned students as consumers. Many pointed out that this could have no good consequences for the nature of education, for its perception by students and the community or for the standards upheld by universities in their degree offerings. Those persuaded by a popular description of academics as lazy, elitist and irrelevant held another view altogether.

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