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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2006

Becoming McUniversities

Frank Furedi
Back in the nineties, the author of the McDonaldization Thesis noted that soon the university will adopt many of the managerial models and practices associated with the spread of this hamburger chain. According to the American sociologist George Ritzer, new forms of quality control and consumer orientation would be integrated into the existing structure of the university. My initial reaction to Ritzer’s thesis was that although it was a clever idea, the arrival of McUniversity was far off. Today, when virtually every university brochure, mission statement and web-site is indistinguishable from one another, I am not so sure. Of course, we don’t quite do the same thing and we try to pursue our work in accordance with the demands of our discipline. However, the pressure towards homogenisation, standardisation and quantification works towards the constant diminishing of academic judgement.

We are increasingly forced to work according to rules and practices that do not derive from an academic culture but from a managerial one. The standardisation of evaluation procedures, benchmarking, auditing and quality assurance procedures all compel academics to work according to an externally imposed script. Today we need to ensure that their teaching is consistent with bureaucratically devised “learning outcomes.” We do not yet have the equivalent of a “literacy hour,” but it is only a matter of time before lecturers are advised to teach certain “key skills” at a designated time in the academic calendar. So how much scope is there for academic judgment? The answer is far too little.

Take the case of a recently appointed social science lecturer, whom I shall call Helen. Recently Helen was criticised for marking her exam scripts too harshly. When she protested and argued that she had marked the papers fairly, her head of department pointed out that her students achieved far higher grades on many of their other examinations. And indeed they had. So what are we to make of this incident? That Helen was a difficult and unfair examiner? That she needs to go on a staff development training course on student appraisal? That the other markers were too lenient? Or as I would argue — it does not really matter if there are variations in marking practices as long as students understand what is expected of them on a specific course.

Of course advocates of McUniversity contend that students are entitled to have the same expectation of all their courses. Just as the customer knows what to expect when he or she purchases a Big Mac so a student should be able to anticipate the kind of service that will be delivered by her lecturer. From the standpoint of the managerial imagination it all makes a lot of sense. The standardised delivery of services and predictable outcomes contribute to the efficiency of a business. However, academic disciplines and courses within a single discipline are not always directly comparable. And if they are then we have a big problem. An academic convenor of a course is entitled to teach in accordance with her interpretation of what constitutes the integrity of her subject matter. That different courses challenge students in different ways and expect different forms of engagement should not be a problem for students. Part of their education is to learn to consciously choose (if there is a choice!) courses. Indeed if some courses were not “hard” and others a “cinch” they would all be predictable ones.

Arguments about the need for “transparent process” are not about providing fair treatment for students but about helping managers manage. Worse still the auditing imperative works towards infantilising academic life. It is interesting to note that many people now express concern about the impact of these trends in pre-university education. Criticism has been voiced about the relentless pressure to test, the straight-jacket of the national curriculum, and the construction of league tables. Yet when it comes to the university we are happy to accept similar practices and the erosion of the role of academic judgment. A university that subsists on templates is well on the way to becoming a McUniversity.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, United Kingdom.

Reprinted from AUTLOOK with the permission of the Association of University Teachers.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.