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Students with a “consumer mindset” achieve lower grades, according to a paper published recently in Studies in Higher Education. The authors studied students from a range of British universities, and asked them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of statements intended to identify their attitudes, including their “learner identity” as someone who was engaged in intellectual development, and their “consumer orientation” as someone who was purchasing a product from the university. They also asked for the students’ most recent mark for assessed work.

With the usual caveats about the possible factors affecting their results, the study concluded that “a lower learner identity was associated with a higher consumer orientation, and in turn with lower academic performance”. This might seem completely obvious to a lot of people working in academe, but it’s very useful to have some empirical data on the connection. It might even be vital, given the increasing pressures for academics and students alike to regard a degree as a consumer product being purchased.

Of course, as we are reminded by those who know rather more about statistics than the average Arts and Humanities lecturer, correlation is not the same thing as causation. There can be a link between two things without one having directly caused the other. I can imagine a number of ways in which treating a degree as a consumer product might connect with achieving lower marks, without it definitely leading to lower marks.

It might be that some students who find their courses difficult find a way to reframe the situation to themselves, deciding that they are struggling because the “product” isn’t working properly. This might allow them to accept, although grudgingly, that they are not going to achieve the results they might hope for, without becoming stressed that they need to push themselves harder than they can manage.

Or there might be demographic correlations which aren’t visible from the figures (though I’m sure the study tried to control for those.) There may be students whose previous experience has encouraged them to value education in a very consumer-focused way, because they did not always have the kind of social and cultural capital which allowed them to join an institution and feel that they belonged. Confidence and comfort in negotiating the world of British universities, with their combination of formal structures and informal relationships, might go along with having attended more elite schools, and thus having previous advantages likely to carry over into university.

These are simply speculations: I’m not putting them forward as explanations of the data here, but just as correlations which might contribute to the pattern being seen. However they come about, though, this connection between a consumer mindset and lower achievement could well be self-reinforcing. Once a student regards their degree as a product, it’s easy to see how that might encourage them to behave in ways which will keep their marks low.

For a start, regarding a degree as a product makes it into an object outside the student. It implies that they won’t need – or want – to be changed by the learning experience. It frames a degree as something which they can just add to their existing collection of possessions. This prepares them to resist ideas which might call into question their previous assumptions, since this would reduce their already accumulated “store” of ideas, rather than adding to it. It also discourages them from taking intellectual risks, since these might damage their final mark and thus devalue the “product”, even if they might also result in personal development and new perspectives which could be useful in future.

I suspect a “consumer mindset” would also keep a student from engaging thoroughly with parts of their course which aren’t of obvious and immediate concern. Working through abstract theories, or immersing oneself in the history of an obscure period, can be some of the most challenging parts of a degree. They require a suspension of the assumption that everything should be of immediate use or interest. There are topics which don’t provide a string of continual small pay-offs in terms of excitement or “relevance”. But without mastering those topics, students cannot achieve a deep understanding of the field. A consumer mindset might easily trap them on the surface, refusing to commit to the depths because they don’t see the point yet, and they won’t pay for something they don’t care about.

Seeing the degree as a product would probably wear away the relationships between students and academics. As I’ve written before, a customer relationship just isn’t workable in higher education; at least, not for people who want to experience it properly. Academics and students need to talk to each other, and listen to each other, in ways which don’t fit with a customer relationship. In fact, a student who presents themselves as a member of an institution has much greater power than one who presents themselves as a customer. They can argue for what they want based on the shared principles of the institution, or the ideas expressed in the courses. They can claim the right to a hearing based on our shared commitment to intellectual enquiry, and the responsibility we have to each other as members of the same collective endeavour. A consumer is just an individual amongst thousands of other individuals, with no better argument to put forward than a threat to withdraw from the customer relationship, leaving the space empty which they competed to gain.

They are less likely to be able to engage in productive relationships with staff on this basis. If only because seeing themselves as a consumer would surely reduce their ability to listen to advice, and act effectively on it. Consumers are the only authority on what they want and how they want to do it: if a degree is a consumer product, then the consumer just consults their personal preference and acts on that basis. A student with a different attitude would benefit from the advice of a lecturer or tutor, who might advise them that their preferences at the moment might not be the best guide to their ongoing learning. The student might, in turn, be able to offer their own experiences to inform the design of the curriculum, and to highlight issues which the faculty hadn’t considered. This sort of mutual help would seem less possible for consumers.

So I’m not surprised that students with a “consumer mindset” achieve less satisfactory grades. I don’t think anyone who works in higher education would be remotely surprised by this evidence. But it does underline something which a lot of us have been saying in recent years: a consumer mindset is bad for the students themselves. It appears to hinder students from engaging fully and productively with their studies. It even seems that it would prevent consumer-minded students from getting what they want: high marks, whether accompanied by an education or not.

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