Students are not consumers

Treating them as customers does nothing to prepare them for the world of work.

The government presents its white paper on the future of higher education as a radical new policy direction. Yet the paper is designed to serve the same two objectives that have governed higher education policy for the past quarter of a century. One is to strengthen the role of students as consumers whose preferences determine the course of higher education provision. The other is to increase the focus of higher education on preparing students for graduate employment.

The contradiction should be obvious. Employers do not treat employees as consumers. Spending three years as a consumer will not prepare you for the world of employment. It is not the content of our degree programmes that we should be changing in order to improve our students' employability. It is the role we expect our students to play within our institutions of higher education.

Consumerism itself obscures this point. For this objective requires us to measure graduate employability and make it known to the next wave of consumers. All that can be measured and made known fast enough are earnings in the first few years after graduation. So universities are encouraged to teach the current practices of the white collar workplace. But our undergraduate students can expect to work for up to fifty years before they retire. Will they be well prepared for this by learning the quotidian routines of today's employees?

Given how dramatically the graduate workplace has changed over the past two decades, this seems very unlikely. What will serve students far better is spending these three years intensively developing their skills of researching, understanding, criticising, rethinking, writing and discussing, individually and together with colleagues. These are the hardy perennials that will see them through their working lives. These are the skills that academic study develops. The more time spent honing these skills, the better. This time should not be given over to learning office techniques attractive to first employers.

What is more, this consumerism is anyway apt to hamper graduates' ability to flourish in those first jobs. For after spending three years in an environment geared to ensuring your satisfaction, the world of work can only come as a major culture shock. All of a sudden, your work schedule cannot be negotiated around your other employments and your social life, your deadlines really are deadlines, you cannot crib your work from handouts made available to you in a variety of media, and, most importantly, your managers are not beholden to your subjective assessment of how they ought to be doing their job. It is hardly surprising if some employers consider their graduate recruits to be in need of retraining.

If the government is serious about graduate employability, then it should abandon the consumerist objective. Students should be seen as apprentices in their disciplines, through which they develop those hardy perennial skills. Academics should be recognised as the experts training these apprentices in these skills. It should be accepted that this involves regularly stretching the students beyond their comfort zones, an experience they might not all enjoy. Above all, it requires accepting that student enjoyment is not a reliable indicator of quality of education.

Under the name Campaign For The Public University (publicuniversity.org.uk), a group of academics and students are now soliciting contributions for an alternative white paper, to be published in September when the government's consultation period ends. That alternative should present a genuinely new policy direction. It looks set to recommend abandoning the consumerist objective in order to put student interests at the heart of higher education. Following this recommendation should also enhance graduate employability.

Jonathan Webber is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.