Learning, consumption and work in higher education: an exploratory study of changing student experiences
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This thesis explores the implications of the changes in the political and social conceptions of higher education and the resulting crisis of higher education in the UK. The specific focus is placed on business schools as institutions operating in increasingly competitive management education markets, and on postgraduate students as key stakeholders that are largely neglected in academic and public discussions. It explores how the emerging characteristics of the management education, such as the reliance on specialised rankings and corporate-inspired business school designs, influence student perceptions of the purposes of education and their experiences of their chosen the programmes of study. In doing so, the thesis draws from theoretical discussions on mechanisms for mediation of market values and principles to students. Specifically, the thesis focuses on commodification of education through commensuration and standardisation embedded in specialised media rankings, and the representation of market values through the features of business school space. A qualitative exploratory study was conducted over a period of one academic year with 61 students enrolled on a postgraduate taught (MSc) programme in Management at a reputable UK business school. Data was collected on student behaviours, activities, opinions and views, as well as on their relationship with their social and organisational surroundings. Student views and perceptions were gathered through observations, informal conversations and 20 in-depth interviews from the chosen programme. Additional interviews with 12 postgraduate students from other schools informed the discussion by providing insights into the similarities and differences between student perceptions and experiences in different institutional settings. Data collection was supplemented with secondary data, including policy documents and visual data. Contrary to the prescriptive, linear and goal-oriented perspective on students dominating contemporary academic and policy discourses, findings suggest that students experience education as a messy and a transformative process, with ambiguous and uncertain outcomes. The thesis contributes to academic debates on the social roles and functions of specialised rankings by providing insights into the nature of the student consumption of rankings, and their influence on student experiences. Furthermore, it contributes to the literature on the implicit and informal elements of business school settings by recognising space as an active and constitutive part of student experience. The thesis challenges the prevalent institutional and political reduction of students to consumers of education, and instead implies that student experience should be treated as a complex, multi-layered and, above all, fluid process. In doing so, the thesis offers a novel approach towards a more comprehensive understanding of the roles and purposes of higher education in contemporary society.