David Gosling

  • Choice, authority and power in a consumerist higher education

    David Gosling 
    University of Plymouth

    Session 1g

    Monday 3 September 2007, 15.45-16.45

    Conceptual paper

    Theme: Goals of higher education

    This paper considers the relationship between three levels at which the goals or aims of higher education may be expressed –

    1. politically motivated policy goals or ‘system goals’
    2. the aims of individual academics (Barnett 1997; Webb 1996) or ‘outcome goals’
    3. what it is that students want to achieve by attending a higher education institution, ‘personal goals’ (D'Andrea and Gosling 2005).

    Given the increasingly common construction of students as customers, or as consumers, of higher education (Morley 2003), I argue that it is important that we should be clear about the basis on which institutions (and its teachers) are able to insist on its members pursuing certain goals (particularly if these override the intentions or wishes of students) and when it is appropriate to offer students choice. This is not simply a matter of competing discursive fields but a question of when authority, exercised through curricula and assessment regimes, is justified

    In order to structure an approach to this complex topic, I will examine the underlying assumptions about student choice and entitlements and teacher power/authority in approaches to teaching and learning typically found in higher education using the conceptual framework developed by Kember (1997) and Pratt (1998). Five teaching perspectives have been proposed, namely: transmission, apprenticeship, developmental, nurturing and social reform. I will argue that each of these different perspectives has distinctive implications for students’ freedom to make choices about the goals they pursue in their studies. The conceptions of teacher authority that are implicit in these five ‘teaching perspectives’ will be explored. This debate reveals tensions between varieties of paternalism (Kleinig 1983) that continue to thrive in higher education, power relationships (Foucault 1980) and the somewhat glib discourse of student choice in which ‘pedagogical relationships are reduced to service-level agreements’ (Morley 2003) .

    When students and teachers have different conceptions of teaching and learning this raises acute questions about what forms of paternalism (implicit or explicit) are justified in respect of adult learners, also known as students. It also raises difficult issues about the relationship between individuals’ conceptions of the goal of higher education and those which are declared through policy declarations by political leaders. These different perspectives reflect quite fundamental differences in views about human nature and the place of education in the lives of (young or not so young) adults.

    Against this background I ask whether it is possible to sustain ideals of the ‘democratic learner’ ‘working to sustain critical stories about democratic life, critical learning and ethical deliberation’ within a corporate consumerist higher education (Walker and Nixon 2004). The implications of this debate for teaching, student learning, the curriculum, student assessment and quality assurance/enhancement are immense, but have not been explored fully in the recent literature.


    • Barnett, R. (1997), Higher Education: A Critical Business (Buckingham: SRHE/Open University).
    • D'Andrea, V-M. and Gosling, D. (2005), Improving Teaching and Learning in Higher Education; a whole institution approach (London: McGraw Hill).
    • Foucault, M. (1980), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 1972 - 1977, ed. C. Gordon, trans. C Gordon, et al. (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press).
    • Kember, D. (1997), 'A reconceptualisation of the research into university academics' conceptions of teaching.' Learning and Instruction, 7 (3), 255 - 75.
    • Kleinig, J. (1983), Paternalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
    • Morley, L. (2003), 'Reconstructing students as customers: power and assimilation?' in M. Slowey and D Watson (eds.), Higher Education and the Lifecourse (Buckingham: SRHE/Open University Press).
    • Pratt, D. and Associates (1998), Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing).
    • Walker, M. and Nixon, J. (eds.) (2004), Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World(Maidenhead: McGraw Hill).
    • Webb, G. (1996), Understanding Staff Development (Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press).