Resisting the iron cage of 'the student experience'

Sarah L Hayes, Petar Jandrić

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As higher education (HE) has come to be valued for its contribution
to the global economy, priorities have been placed on study for a
degree to directly meet the needs of industry (Hayes, 2015: p. 125).
Furthermore, in UK policy, students have been defined as ‘customers’
by the government since the introduction of tuition fees (Dearing, 1997;
Browne, 2010). Together, these developments have emphasized the role of
a degree as a consumer ‘product’, purchased to secure future employment
(Peters, Jandrić and Hayes, 2018a), rather than an experiential learning
‘process’, that continues well beyond student life (Hayes, 2015 : p. 130). We
examine how the student-as-consumer approach in HE policy has recently
developed into a strong rhetoric emphasizing ‘the student experience’ as
a package, including leisure, well-being, future employment and other ‘extras’.
This could be perceived as positive, where all elements of student life
are acknowledged. Alternatively, policy discourse concerning ‘the student
experience’ could also be critiqued as a concept that now transcends the
notion of a degree as a utilitarian product. A disturbing impression is then
generated, where universities are now delivering a packaged experience of
‘consumption itself’, to students (Argenton, 2015: p. 921). What students
would individually experience, such as a ‘sense of belonging and pride in
the university’, is delivered to students, not developed by them. To examine
such concerns more closely, we analyse a sample of 20 UK university
‘student experience’ strategies, via a corpus-based Critical Discourse
Analysis (CDA). Drawing on themes from these texts, we question who
‘the student experience’ rhetoric really benefits? If a rationalized experience
is constructed on behalf of students, then universities as ‘cathedrals
of consumption’ (Ritzer, 2010) align themselves with any other provider
of consumer experiences, where the ‘production’ of academic life has all
been taken care of. In such a discourse, students are not necessarily conceptualized
as empowered consumers either (Brooks, 2017) but trapped
instead within an ‘iron cage’, even before they set foot in the workplace.
Yet, despite a distorted picture that neoliberal HE policy discourse may
portray, a postdigital understanding of ‘the student experience’ could yet
offer helpful insights into possible routes of resistance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-143
JournalŠolsko polje
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2018


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