Education is often discussed through the prism of market relations, showing an increasing number of similarities with other spheres. According to this paradigm, education can be viewed as a process of service delivery. In this case, students serve as customers of the institutions, paying tuition fees to receive a specific product in the form of personal and academic competencies. This situation requires profound empirical research, which would demonstrate whether the comparison is justified. Furthermore, it appears relevant to examine the perception of the commercialized education concept from the students’ standpoint. This research aims to analyze the described model in the form of a qualitative study of university students’ opinions regarding their alleged role as education service consumers.
Review of Literature
The controversy surrounding the growing commercialization of education has been an area of intense interest for researchers across the globe. Taatila (2017) states that the global paradigm of higher education has undergone massive changes in a relatively short period. While this sphere remains a key mechanism of societal development in all countries, Brooks (2018) observes a lack of “clear understanding of the extent to which conceptualizations of ‘the student’ are shared” (p. 500). Such a statement derives from the growing tendency of making education a commercial enterprise, in which customers exchange their money for a specific product. Tomlinson (2017) and Raaper (2019) state that the model stems from learners’ increasing financial contributions. Such a perception of students has become a matter of controversy, causing a heated debate in the global academic community (Guilbault, 2018). Danns and Danns (2017) demonstrate a softer manifestation of this phenomenon, referring to students as consumers in a global sense, which means that they live in a world of consumption and require additional training in this regard. In its narrower understanding, the notion suggests that higher education systems establish market-oriented relations with their students.
Several researchers examine the issue at length while proposing alternative relationship models for higher education. Gretzky and Lerner (2020) write that students’ needs exceed the framework of consumerism. According to Arboleda and Alonso (2017), motivation and positivity remain crucial in education, whereas Cheng (2017) refers to it as an instrument of emancipation and empowerment. Moreover, Nomita (2019) says that education is a key factor, in promoting the “virtues of freedom, social justice, and equal opportunities” (p. 908). Therefore, there is a growing demand for tools that would provide a more in-depth assessment of student-university relations (Chernosky, Ausburn, and Curtis, 2020). A consumer-centered paradigm would impede this goal, as it promotes aggressive and narcissistic behavior (Nixon, Scullion, and Hearn, 2018). On the contrary, it is essential to ensure the quality of education through a properly organized relationship paradigm (Tasopoulou and Tsiotras, 2017). While Gravett, Kinchin, and Winstone (2020) suggest that students should be deemed partners rather than consumers, Grogan (2017) recognizes their role as co-producers of knowledge. Overall, literature findings suggest that the social requirements of higher education demand a more complex paradigm than consumerism.
The literary findings indicate that a certain degree of commercialization in education is present, although the focus shifts toward a broader role of students as co-creators of knowledge rather than consumers. Most research on the topic focuses on the faculty’s side, whereas learners remain an equally crucial system element (Gravett, Kinchin, and Winstone, 2020). The aim of the present study was to analyze the other perspective on the matter by examining students’ perceptions of it. A qualitative model was appropriate in this scenario, as it allowed for an in-depth discussion of the issue with people who are directly involved in the process.
The research was conducted in the form of three online interviews, comprising specific thought-provoking questions. This format was chosen deliberately to enable free discussions with an open exchange of opinions unrestrained by, for example, survey topics. The participants were third-year students of this country’s high-profile universities, meaning that they have had enough time to familiarize themselves with the system. Once the information was collected, it was systemized and analyzed in the form of a qualitative report. The participants were informed of the aim and nature of the project, willingly sharing their perception of commercialized education in the 21st century. To ensure an honest discussion, the findings are presented anonymously and without mentioning specific institutions.
Discussion and Analysis
The qualitative study aimed to determine whether university students perceive themselves as consumers of educational services and approve of this role. Another goal of the interview was to examine students’ opinions regarding other roles proposed in the literature, as well as their overall preferred aspects of learning. All three respondents were unanimous in their disapproval of reducing their roles to those of service consumers. Semantic analysis and interpretation of each respondent’s speech helped determine the key themes present during the discussion. Findings suggest that such a philosophy diminishes the importance of education as one of the cornerstones of a developed society. Learning forms one’s essential competencies across a lifetime, and this process should not be compared to consumerism. Furthermore, one of the participants stated that it is inappropriate to compare tuition fees with regular purchases, as it is more of a self-investment.
As far as proposed roles are concerned, two out of three respondents preferred to be called partners in education. Simultaneously, the third participant spoke in favor of Grogan’s (2017) point of view, according to which students co-produce knowledge instead of being its recipients. Overall, qualitative data obtained in this study implies that students are not willing to serve as customers in the process of education. Key terms used by the participants are “active”, “engagement”, “participation”, and “involvement”. Therefore, the students’ perception does not correspond to the passive role of a service consumer. This stance corresponds with the contemporary literature pointing at the evolving role of students not as mere consumers of knowledge but as equal partners in education. Learners contribute to the process significantly, which makes them co-creators of knowledge, and the respondents seemed to accept this role.
In conclusion, students are often called consumers of learning, which causes debate in the academic environment. Many scholars disagree with such a model, stating that it does not reflect the nature of the process. Instead, they propose new paradigms, which recognize the active role of students in education. Empirical research has revealed that students themselves do not accept the principle of consumerism in education. Learners actively engage in the process, contributing to their own knowledge. Accordingly, such terms as “partners” or “co-producers” are generally more welcomed by students, as they correspond to the reality of education in the 21st century.
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