Student Unions fighting consumerism have seldom an impact

Past months there was a big discussion at the UVA in Amsterdam with students fighting the board members who are/were in charge of the university. They wanted to have a bigger impact on university policy and one of the things they are fighting against is what we could consumerism, seeing the students as consumers.

This new study published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education although focusing on the UK, has found that while students’ unions often try to oppose the rise of consumerism at their universities, they are rarely successful. Maybe it could be good news for the students in Amsterdam because as many of the protesting students weren’t formally part of a student union, one of the big difficulties to oppose consumerism is not present.

From the press release:

The team of researchers at the University of Surrey arranged various focus groups at 10 higher education institutions, with both students’ union leaders and university managers. They found that the nature of relationships between unions and their university often makes it difficult for students’ unions to reject consumerism — either because they have little independence to develop their own agenda due to financial dependence on their institution, or because they are dependent on their own consumer activities (e.g. bars, clubs and shops) to retain some independent income.

In recent years, government policy and the media have seen students increasingly positioned as consumers. Various higher education reforms have been based on the assumption that students will actively ‘shop around’, comparing institutions and courses to secure the best possible education.

“Indeed it is this form of ‘educational choice’ that has been seen by politicians as an important mechanism for promoting competition between institutions and, consequently, for raising standards,” said lead author Professor Rachel Brooks from the University of Surrey.

“However, the National Union of Students has tried to develop an alternative political agenda, which rejects a consumerist approach to education. Anti-consumerist positions have also been taken up within individual students’ unions.

“Our study found that though that this approach has not been successful. The irony for students’ unions is that one of the main means of retaining independence and being able to resist consumerist agendas, is by embracing commercialism and providing services to paying students,” added Professor Brooks.

Abstract of the study:

This article explores the economic relationships between individual students’ unions and their wider institutions, and the ways in which they articulate with a pervasive consumerist agenda across the higher education sector. We draw on data from a UK-wide study to argue that students’ unions have an ambivalent relationship with consumerist discourses: on the one hand, they often reject the premise that the higher education student is best conceptualised as a consumer; yet, on the other, they frequently accept aspects of consumerism as a means of, for example, trying to protect their independence and autonomy. We explore whether this particular form of positioning with respect to consumerism is best conceptualised as a form of resistance, or whether it has become extremely difficult for students’ unions to take up any other position in a system that is driven by market logic.

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