So, there was an interesting article from Studies in Higher Education making the rounds on social media yesterday. Written by a trio of UK researchers, the article is entitled “The Student-as-Consumer Approach in Higher Education and its Effects on Academic Performance”, and is – miraculously – available ungated, here. The short version is that students who have a consumerist attitude towards education tend to have lower academic performance. For those who bewail the encroachment of consumerist attitudes in higher education, this obviously was like a delicious, refreshing glass of I-told-you-so.
Upon closer inspection, though, this study isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. The basic set-up here was that the authors asked a group of students across a number of UK institutions to fill-in a questionnaire. The questionnaire asked a number of demographic questions, a set of questions about “learner identity” (basically attitudes towards learning, which in North America would be called “engagement”), and a set of questions labelled “consumer orientation”. It also asked about field of study, whether a student is paying for tuition him/herself (under the UK’s income-contingent system, only 20% said their parents were paying for their fees), and what their target grades were. The conclusion was that all of these things had some kind of significant effect on grades, but that a consumerist attitude had a mediating effect on all of them, all in a negative direction.
The most obvious problem here is that the dependent variable is a self-report of academic achievement. Anyone who’s ever worked with self-reports of grades will tell you: that’s a pretty iffy data source.
The next problem is that “consumerism”, as a notion, was constructed in a questionable way. The researchers asked students 15 questions, and based on their answers created an index of consumerist orientation. Some of those questions seem alright, for instance: “I think of my university degree as a product I am purchasing”, or “I am entitled to leave university with a good degree because I am paying for it” (a “good degree” in the UK means a degree with a high classification, which is sort of the same thing as a high GPA over here). However, some of the questions that make up the consumerist ranking are, to my mind, indicators of having a utilitarian rather than a consumer outlook (e.g., “I only want to learn things which will help me in my career”, “my lecturers should round up my final grade a point or two if I am close to the next grade boundary”), and some of them are actually indicators of financial uncertainty (e.g. “I regularly think of the financial cost of my degree”). Throw all that together in a single index and it’s not clear to me that this is actually all that useful.
And this leads to the final problem: there are no family background demographics in the survey. Which means we don’t really know how much of the engagement and consumerism variables are really just reflections of class background and cultural capital. It’s fairly safe to assume that students from lower class backgrounds in the UK – especially first-generation students – would be more likely to be financially insecure, and more likely to have a utilitarian attitude towards school (that is, they attend for specific career goals). By lumping all of those factors into the “consumerist” category, what the authors may simply be picking up is that grades and class origins are positively correlated. Which we already kinda knew.
In other words: interesting hypothesis, but this study isn’t all that persuasive. Case unproven – so far, at least.