Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Generational Encounters with Higher EducationThe Academic-Student Relationship and the University Experience$

Jennie Bristow, Sarah Cant, and Anwesa Chatterjee

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781529209778

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781529209778.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM POLICY PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.policypress.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Policy Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in PPSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 17 May 2022

Introduction: The Emergence of a ‘Graduate Generation’

Introduction: The Emergence of a ‘Graduate Generation’

(p.1) 1 Introduction: The Emergence of a ‘Graduate Generation’
(p.i) Generational Encounters With Higher Education

Jennie Bristow

Sarah Cant

Anwesa Chatterjee

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines the unique approach taken by this study of the changing academic-student relationship in the context of both massification and the marketisation of British Higher Education. The book explores how the meaning of the ‘University experience’ is produced and interpreted by prospective and current undergraduates, by those working in Higher Education, and by wider networks of family and friends. It considers how the purpose of the University, and the role of students and academics, has been framed by politicians, over successive waves of policy making, and the disjuncture between these narratives and the ways in which those working and studying in Universities articulate what they do and why. By taking a generational perspective, the book considers how discussions about the University today are contextualised by historical experience.

Keywords:   Generation, Higher Education, University, Academics, Students, Policy, Massification, Marketization, Mental Health


Higher Education occupies a peculiar place in discussions among academics. It is the place where we work and a source of professional, intellectual and often personal identity, as well as a site of mundane frustrations and everyday distractions. Whatever our institutional affiliations or disciplinary specialisms, the University is interesting to us because it occupies so much of our lives. So it is not surprising that Higher Education generates reams of research, commentary and critique written by academics for academics. This large and important body of literature addresses a range of specific questions, including the demands of teaching, the pressures of research, the trajectory of policy, the problem of funding, the rise of the ‘student consumer’, the decline of academic freedom, the changing composition of the student body, and the construction of new forms of academic identity. But all such accounts, explicitly or implicitly, touch on the central questions posed by Furedi (2017)What’s Happened to the University? – and Collini (2012)What Are Universities For?

For better or for worse, the University of the 21st century is a very different beast from its earlier incarnations. The magnitude of this transformation, the reasons behind it, and its implications for academics, students and wider society have been deftly explored in the critical literature, addressing the global context of Higher Education (Trow, 1999, 2007; Altbach, 2016) and the trajectory of British policy (Shattock, 2012; Williams, 2013). In recent years, particular attention has been paid to how processes of marketisation and financialisation are increasingly shaping the funding, practices and narrative of the British (p.2) University (Molesworth et al, 2011; Brown, 2013; McGettigan, 2013), resulting in a reorientation of Higher Education’s purpose, away from its conceptualisation as a public, social good to its positioning as an individual benefit (Marginson, 2011; Nixon, 2011; Williams, 2016).

Less attention, however, has been devoted to the rise of public interest in, or debate about, Higher Education. Until fairly recently, what happened on University campuses in Britain was of marginal concern to anybody not working or studying there, or making policy about it. Today, by contrast, the funding arrangements, institutional practices, personal struggles and cultural dramas of the University are frequently headline news. This is partly to do with the fact that so many more school leavers now go to University than in previous generations, making Higher Education a topic of direct interest for millions of young people and their families (UCAS, 2018a). It is also to do with the individual financial costs of Higher Education. Increasing levels of tuition fees and student debt have provoked widespread consternation, rising to the top of the political agenda in the 2017 general election and prompting an official review of post-18 education and funding, led by Dr Philip Augur (DfE, 2019). The intense interest in the University is also driven by concerns about the wider experience of Higher Education for young people: what it means, whether it is worth the cost and, increasingly, its impact on students’ mental health. The subsequent chapters explore these issues in depth.

The everyday work of the University has come under the spotlight, too. Universities have been criticised for their admissions procedures: tempting prospective students with ‘unconditional offers’ – promising a University place regardless of the grades achieved in a student’s A levels (Burns, 2019; OfS, 2019a, 2019b; Williams, 2019) – or appearing to demonstrate a persistent bias against black and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and those from less affluent backgrounds (UUK/NUS, 2019; Stevenson et al, 2019). They are accused of sloppy academic practices, and complicity in ‘spiralling grade inflation’ (OfS, 2018a): analysis by the Office for Students (OfS) revealed that between 2010–11 and 2016–17, the proportion of graduates awarded first and upper-second class degrees rose from 67 per cent to 78 per cent, with the proportion of first class degrees rising from 16 per cent to 27 per cent (OfS, 2018b; Sellgren, 2018). Universities have been criticised for policies that restrict freedom of speech, through outlawing ‘offensive’ speech and mandating the use of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ to restrict discussion of sensitive issues (Slater, 2016; Beech, 2018); and students are frequently cast as censorious ‘snowflakes’, who take offence at the slightest criticism or difference of opinion (Harrison, 2019). (p.3) Vice Chancellors are challenged to ‘justify’ their high salaries and to provide courses offering better ‘value for money’ (Richardson, 2017).

How do we explain this explosion of general interest in the University? As previously noted, this is in part due to the fact that Higher Education in Britain now directly involves more people than ever before. Over the 21st century, the proportion of young people participating in Higher Education has risen steadily, reaching 50 per cent in 2016/17 (DfE 2018a).1 Over half of these young people are 18 years old, having come to University straight from school: indeed, 18 is now the de facto school-leaving age in England, as young people are required to remain in education or training until that age (Gov.uk, 2019). Although it remains the case that students from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to progress to University, the data suggests that increasing proportions of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now captured by the University experience (DfE 2018b).2 There are more working class undergraduates now than there were before, but there are more middle class undergraduates too. Discussions about the University are thus discussions about matters that affect not just a section of young people, but pertain to the fortunes of a whole generation.

The story of Higher Education since the mid-20th century has been one of increasing ‘massification’, with participation increasing from 3 per cent in 1950 to 8 per cent in 1970, more than doubling again to 19 per cent in 1990, and increasing again to 33 per cent in 2000 (Bolton, 2012; Giannakis and Bullivant, 2016). Yet while the transformation of British Higher Education from an elite to a mass system has been underway for many decades, it is only in recent years that ‘going to University’ has become situated as a normative experience – an expected next step for middle class school leavers on their journey to adulthood, and one which growing proportions of their working class peers are encouraged to take. And during this period, Higher Education has also become increasingly politicised, situated as a central topic for public interest and debate.

The designated role of today’s University is cast far wider than the pursuit of knowledge, or the acquisition of qualifications. It is regarded as the precursor to independent living, a necessary means to the development of the skills and attributes for ‘employability’, and a demonstration of an individual’s commitment to make a personal investment in their success. The University has become explicitly situated as a core institution for the socialisation of a generation of ‘emerging adults’ (Arnett, 2015). At the same time, however, as ‘going to University’ has become framed as a social, generational expectation, it is also positioned as a personal benefit, which individuals actively (p.4) choose and for which they should pay directly, in the form of tuition fees. This tension, between the University as a normative experience and an individual choice and benefit, is the starting point for our exploration of the experience of a new ‘graduate generation’.

By positioning Higher Education as the expected next step for half of all school leavers, policy makers have ensured that it is a topic of interest and concern to a wider range of people than has previously been the case. This is most significant for the young people who embark on this step, for whom the transition from childhood to adulthood, from school to work, is now mediated by the institutional practices, academic expectations, relationships, and social and cultural norms of the academy. But it is also significant in framing the experiences of the ‘other half ’ of the cohort, who do not go to University, and whose life opportunities are presumed to be limited by their failure to engage with this regime. Furthermore, it should be emphasised that neither students nor non-students are homogenous groups – and as we will see, our study complicates the policy assumption that there is one single ‘student voice’. We suggest, rather, that the current public interest in, and discussion about, Higher Education reflects a much wider set of concerns: about the educational, social, and economic opportunities available to all young people.

In writing this book, we are not seeking to document the literal experience of University for all students (a task that would, arguably, be impossible), but to understand how the meaning of the ‘University experience’ is produced and interpreted by prospective and current undergraduates, by those working in Higher Education, and by wider networks of family and friends. We consider how the purpose of Higher Education, and the role of students and academics, has been framed by politicians, over successive waves of policy making, and the disjuncture between these narratives and the ways in which those working and studying in Universities articulate what they do and why. By taking a generational perspective, we also consider how discussions about the University today are contextualised by historical experience.

Higher Education as a normative experience

The central position occupied by Higher Education in Britain was confirmed in 2001, when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at Southampton University, re-stated the Labour party’s ‘top three priorities’ of ‘education, education, education’. A central aspect of Blair’s mission to ‘make Britain a learning society, developing the talents (p.5) and raising the ambitions of all our young people’, was a significant expansion of the University sector. Blair argued:

We believe there is no greater ambition for Britain than to see a steadily rising proportion gain the huge benefits of a university education as school standards rise, meeting our goal of 50% of young adults progressing to higher education by 2010. An ambitious goal because we are ambitious for Britain.

(Guardian, 2001)

Meeting this ‘ambitious goal’ required that, for the first time since 1962, undergraduate students would be required to pay tuition fees towards the cost of their state-funded Higher Education. The Labour government introduced ‘top up’ fees of £1,000 per year in 1998, rising to £3,000 per year in 2004. Following the election of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, tuition fees rose again to £9,000 and, subsequently for Universities in England, to £9,250 per year (Anderson, 2016). The fees regime is complicated by devolution. Universities in Scotland do not charge fees to students resident in Scotland, but charge £9,250 for students from elsewhere in the UK; and Universities in Northern Ireland charge a lower level of fees to students resident in Northern Ireland than to those from England, Wales, and Scotland. Students from all four nations currently pay up to £9,250 to study in Wales.3 A radical restructuring of Higher Education funding in England and Wales meant that Universities – particularly in some academic subjects – would rely directly on the fees paid by their ‘customers’, and the cap on student numbers was lifted, enabling – and indeed compelling – institutions to compete openly for students.

This was not the first time that governments had made significant changes to the structure of Higher Education. In one important respect, these changes reflected the next stage in the processes of massification and marketisation that have underpinned developments in Higher Education over the latter half of the 20th century. Nor were they changes that were unique to Britain; similar processes were already well underway in the United States and, in different forms, in Continental Europe (Antonucci, 2016), following a global logic of expansion (Altbach, 2016). In setting a target of 50 per cent participation, the New Labour government was following a shift in the conceptualisation of Higher Education from ‘elite to mass to universal access’, first described by Martin Trow back in 1973 (Trow, 2007). Far from being a privilege preserved for a minority of young people, it would become (p.6) an experience that more and more young people would both have a right to expect, and would be expected to have.

By placing ‘education, education, education’ at the heart of the policy agenda, Blair’s Southampton speech also situated Higher Education as a key political issue for Britain. Questions of who should go to University, why they should go to University, and how Higher Education should be funded were framed as matters of wider public interest and concern, beyond the school leavers and academics who would be directly affected. The policy that tuition fees would be paid in part by individual students marked this out as qualitatively different from previous phases of expansion. Individual students were confronted with the expectation not only that they should go to University, but also that they should pay for the privilege: a financial commitment that would, in many cases, be met by taking out loans and getting into debt.

The introduction of the fees regime alongside the expectation that more and more teenagers should go to University provoked a wider discussion about society’s responsibility to the younger generation as a whole. In this respect, the current debates raging about Higher Education are not only about the University. The central position occupied by Higher Education in politics and policy has positioned its institutions as the source of great hopes, both for the individual and for wider society. The current policy narrative is that an increased proportion of highly educated young people will result in a more highly-skilled, competitive ‘knowledge economy’; that expansion in access to Higher Education will result in greater social mobility and improved life chances for individuals; and that the increased choice and accountability offered by the fees regime will give individual students a better quality of education and a better University experience. Young people are encouraged to buy into this narrative – both literally, through the payment of fees, and by investing high hopes and expectations in their University experience. Yet as the University has become a site for the management of a range of social problems, as we discuss later in the chapter, it has moved further away from its distinct and special purpose, as an institution focused on the development and transmission of knowledge. In Durkheimian terms, it has gradually moved out of the realm of the sacred, and into the domain of the profane – tasked with managing the mundane concerns of everyday life and work.

This process of integration and normalisation of Higher Education is reflected not only in the discourse of Higher Education policy, but also in wider cultural discussions and debates, in the news media, films, novels and everyday conversations. On one level, the political positioning of an expanded Higher Education system as a ‘magic bullet’ (p.7) that will achieve a wide range of social, economic, and individual goods has been remarkably successful. Universities have come to occupy an important place in the British economy, and in the life of cities and towns.4 People generally perceive Higher Education both as a public good and as an individual opportunity. Despite fears that the introduction of, and increase in, tuition fees would deter students from going to University, this does not seem to be the case. As in the US, the problem of fees and student debt occupies a prominent place in critical commentary and political debate, but this has not, so far, resulted in prospective students ‘voting with their feet’ and deciding to do something else.

However, the process by which the University has gradually been brought down from its ‘ivory tower’ and integrated into mundane social and economic affairs has given rise to some significant contradictions. For example, Ritzer (2002) argues that the University has been ‘McDonaldized’ according to the doctrine of efficiency, demonstrated through quantifiable measures and utilising ‘an increasing number of nonhuman technologies that control and even replace professors’ (Ritzer, 2002: 19). Yet while market logic presents an ‘obvious’ rationale for this approach, it throws up a conflict between what is being sold and how Universities can sell it. Universities are required to broker a new relationship with students, based on the assumption that they ‘increasingly see themselves as consumers of education in much the same way as they are consumers of what the mall (including the cybermall) and Disney World have to offer’, and should be engaged with not as ‘reliable, long-term clients’ but as ‘fickle customers who may be difficult to attract and retain’ (Ritzer, 2002: 19–20). This, in turn, means that institutions of Higher Education have to cover this efficient, mass system with a ‘spectacular surface’, which will entice students to purchase its product. ‘Students are unlikely to be attracted to, and to remain long at, a bare-bones university that resembles and operates like a factory … or a no-frills warehouse store’, writes Ritzer – thus, in order to survive, the modern University ‘needs to be both McDonaldized and spectacular’ (Ritzer, 2002: 20).

The ways in which British Universities, following the American model, have attempted to construct a ‘spectacular surface’ in order to attract and maintain their customer base will be familiar to academics and students alike. Images of shiny new facilities and ‘learning technologies’, offers of a bewildering array of optional modules, and the continual solicitation of student feedback on course content alongside the performance of listening (‘You Said, We Did’), can be regarded as attempts to ‘enchant’ the Higher Education product. Yet, as we (p.8) explore in the subsequent chapters of this book, such attempts to sell the University not only undermine the educational role that should lie at its heart, but are received with no small degree of scepticism, even cynicism, by students and members of the public, who often perceive these endeavours as a superficial cover for driving down the quality of actual education, and resulting in courses that offer less real ‘value for money’. As Ritzer suggests, even within the warped logic that frames Higher Education as a consumer good, there is a strong case for resisting rationalisation and reasserting the centrality of the academic–student relationship:

While everything around it is growing increasingly McDonaldized, the route open to the university is to create spectacle by deMcDonaldizing its quotidian activities. Inefficient, unpredictable, incalculable education employing human technologies will seem quite spectacular to students, especially in contrast to the numbing McDonaldization that is increasingly found almost everywhere else.

(Ritzer, 2002: 31–2)

In his discussion of ‘the rise of the academic novel’, Jeffrey Williams (2012) describes how the rapid expansion of Higher Education over the latter half of the 20th century brought in ‘ballooning numbers of students’ and employed large numbers of academics, ‘becoming central to American life’:

By 1990, after two generations had assimilated the experience of mass higher education, the professor was no longer eccentric but a typical figure of professional, middle-class culture. The academic novel matured to become a primary theater of adult experience and the professor became a hero, or anti-hero, of the story of contemporary work and family life.

(Williams, 2012: 577)

Following this insight, we suggest that in its ‘real life’ British context, the 21st century University occupies an unenviable position as both panacea and pariah. Burdened with the expectation that it will solve an expanding range of economic and social problems, as well as managing young people’s psychological and emotional transition to adulthood, the University finds itself subject to blistering criticism when things go wrong. As previously noted, everything from Vice Chancellors’ pay to admissions criteria to grading decisions have (p.9) become fodder for media headlines and calls for further regulation. When what goes on within the University has come to be regarded as a ‘primary theater of adult experience’ (Williams, 2012: 577), it has also become a battleground on which a wide variety of anxieties are fought out, to do with the socialisation of young people, and their struggles with growing up. Concerns about a whole range of social and cultural factors – from the pressures that surround educational achievement to the difficulties of finding employment, from the negative impact of ‘pushy’ or ‘helicopter’ parents to young people’s struggles to live independently, and from the dangers of social media to the imperative of learning to survive in a networked society – often come to focus on the problem of students’ mental health and wellbeing. Thus, provoked by reports of tragic student suicides, particularly at the ‘elite’ Russell Group Universities, the former Universities minister Sam Gyimah pronounced in 2018 that tackling mental health problems should be a top priority for Vice Chancellors. Gyimah stated:

There are some Vice Chancellors who think that university is about training the mind and all of these things are extra that they don’t have to deal with. They can’t do that, they’ve got to get behind this programme. It can’t be something that belongs to the wellbeing department of the university. This requires sustained and serious leadership from the top.

(Weale, 2018)

In this respect, the politicisation of Higher Education has some profoundly destabilising consequences for the educational mission of the University. Although many of the debates about Higher Education are not wholly related to, or primarily caused by, what goes on within the University, they lead to institutional and policy responses that have a major impact on academic practice and on the relationships between University staff and students. The positioning of students as ‘consumers’ of their own, individual Higher Education experience has affected the way in which students conceptualise the University’s obligations to them, and the ways in which Universities conceptualise their obligations towards students. The imperative to provide ‘value for money’, to fulfil particular claims laid out in marketing literature, to enhance students’ generic employability skills, and to ensure high levels of student satisfaction with various elements of their course has become the basis for a distinct regime of governmentality, manifested in surveillance, standardisation, bureaucratisation and metrics. These (p.10) features of modern University governance seek to shape academics’ interaction with students in particular ways, within and beyond their disciplinary specialism. Such trends also mitigate the generational transmission of knowledge, and rationalise the process of gaining a degree through an instrumental focus on grades, feedback and communication.

Many of the implications of this orientation around the ‘student consumer’ for academic practice, freedom and governance have been well described in the existing literature. Less well explored, however, has been the impact of these changes on the central relationship of University life: that between academic and student. As academics become explicitly positioned as providers of a service, with a responsibility to achieve particular outcomes (such as a ‘good degree’ and transferable employability skills) for their students, the character of their authority shifts, becoming more bureaucratic and managerial than strictly educational. Students are often constructed as potential litigants, which simultaneously encourages academics to maintain a wary distance from students, and to seek their approval. In this respect, the conversation between academics and students has become increasingly scripted and depersonalised (Willmott, 1995; Hyde et al, 2013).

At the same time, the heightened focus on student mental health results in a demand that academic staff must engage more intimately with students’ emotional wellbeing, and take greater responsibility for pre-empting and preventing potentially adverse outcomes. In a context of increasing student numbers, genuine opportunities for personal interaction between academics and individual students are often limited; and when such encounters do arise, they involve myriad tensions and constraints. As educators, academics are poorly equipped to deal with psychiatric disorders – yet they feel they cannot simply signpost vulnerable students to specialised services, and cannot refuse to engage with expressions of distress. Furthermore, the expansive use of the vocabulary of mental health means that it is often difficult to ascertain whether expressions of distress reflect a psychiatric illness, or a ‘normal’ difficulty experienced by many students as they struggle with academic work, growing up, living away from home, and other demands of University life. This problem was noted by Sir Simon Wessley, president of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) and former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), in response to Gyimah’s demand that Universities prioritise the therapeutic imperative of promoting student mental health above their educational function of ‘training the mind’. Cautioning that Universities should not ‘over medicalise’ the emotions of young adults, Wessley said:

(p.11) There are things that aren’t disorders at all that students habitually get – exam stress, loneliness and so on – all of which can be problematic. But we shouldn’t go round automatically saying ‘Oh you have a psychiatric disorder, you need psychiatric or mental health or professional help’.

(Turner, 2018)

As we explore in subsequent chapters, this tension is deeply felt by academic staff, and has some significant implications for academic practice and the academic–student relationship. The expectation that academics have a responsibility to minimise adverse impacts on students’ mental health, coupled with the construction of students as litigious consumers, contributes to defensive academic practice, where controversial topics of discussion may be avoided and timidity operates with regard to giving critical feedback and poor grades. The educational quality of the academic–student relationship, which allows for the development of intellectual guidance and trust based on advanced subject knowledge, is compromised by an expectation that the academic should directly manage the student’s emotional engagement with the ‘University experience’: providing generic therapeutic support which the academic feels ill-equipped to offer, and which the student often feels to be inadequate. We discuss the frustration experienced by academics and students alike with what they perceive to be a growing gap between the educational potential of the academic–student relationship, and the limited encounters that are made possible in the current context.

And yet, on campuses across Britain, the work of the University continues. Young people come to University to develop their knowledge; academics retain a commitment to scholarship and the education of the next generation. How are the tensions and contradictions embedded in this experience navigated by those working and studying in Higher Education today? That is the question we explore in this book.

Taking a generational perspective

Our interest in this topic has been provoked by a combination of scholarly interest and professional and personal experiences. Jennie’s research area is the sociology of generations, focusing on the construction of ideas about generational conflict within social policy narratives (Bristow, 2015, 2019a) and the implications for education and parenting culture (Bristow, 2016; Lee et al, 2014). As an early (p.12) career academic with a previous career in journalism, Jennie has a keen interest in the relationship between policy narratives and generational meaning. Sarah has an established academic career within pre-and post-1992 Universities5, and has experienced the impact of institutional reform and changes in the student body over the past three decades. Her research area is the sociology of Higher Education and the sociology of health and illness, encompassing an exploration of the dimensions of the apparent epidemic of mental ill-health among students (see, for example, Cant and Sharma, 1999; Cant and Watts, 2007; Cant, 2018; Cant et al, 2019). Anwesa is an early career academic, who grew up in India and completed her doctoral studies in the US, with specialisations in medical sociology and race, and ethnic relations (see, for example, Chatterjee, 2018; Adams et al, 2018, 2019). Prior to working in the UK, she taught in the US for more than four years.

As a research team, we come from three different generations, with distinct experiences of working and studying in Higher Education. As parents of teenagers and emerging adults, who have recently gone through the University experience (Sarah) or will potentially be embarking on it (Jennie), we have an interest in the undergraduate that is literally close to home. As qualitative researchers, our aim was to combine this subjective interest and engagement with the topic with a more objective account of the way Higher Education is currently positioned by policy, and experienced by those people who encounter it. We acknowledge that our own subjective experiences inform our interest in, and our approach to, the topic we are studying, and that this is often considered to be a risky endeavour for social scientists, raising the potential for bias. But as Hochschild (2003) eloquently argues in the introduction to her study of ‘the commercialization of intimate life’, such engagement is not necessarily a barrier to the Weberian objective of ‘finding the truth’, and indeed can add an important dimension:

[O] ur subjectivity, with the wealth of comparisons it implants in us, transforms us into tourists of ourselves, visitors of the odd sights of everyday life. It removes the dull sense that anything at all is obvious. Every social scientist has his or her subjectivity; the question is how we use it.

(Hochschild, 2003: 6)

In this book, we use our subjectivity to explore how changes in the norms, values and policies of Higher Education, as experienced by different generations of academics and students, might shape those now coming of age – and, equally importantly, the extent to which (p.13) the import of these changes may be complicated and moderated by other social and cultural factors. We also reflect on the implications for the understanding of the academic and their role. Experiences of broad-ranging changes in role and purpose over the course of one’s professional life can be unsettling, and, in a context of rapid policy churn, can both reflect and contribute to a wider sense of anomie.

The work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu punctuates the book, his concepts of habitus, field, capital and hysteresis providing insightful ways to think about the changes to British Higher Education. All are central to his explanation for differences in educational achievement: economic, cultural and social capital shape societal hierarchies and are mapped out and embodied in every individual’s habitus (a set of dispositions, values, expectations, ways of acting, thinking and feeling that are developed through familial and school socialisation and shaped by gender, race and class, and which impact on taste, choices and practices), and, in turn, realised or deployed in fields of practice such as the University (Bourdieu, 1996). His use of hysteresis is particularly valuable as it is closely aligned to generational change, social crisis and field restructuring. Bourdieu argues that at times of abrupt change, a disruption between field and habitus can occur, and describes this in relation to changes to the academic field in France in the 1960s and 1970s:

[E] verything which made up the old order, the intangible liberties and connivances which are shaped by people in the same milieu, the respectful familiarity which was de rigeur between different generations of the same family were abolished.

(Bourdieu, 1988: 151)

The concept of hysteresis is different from alienation and anomie, as it is not about moral forces but is designed to capture the relationship between an individual and society, referring to a mismatch between elements that were previously connected, ‘a structural lag between opportunities and the dispositions to grasp them’ (Bourdieu, 1977: 83). We suggest that irrevocable changes to University education in the UK since the 1980s have given rise to such a state. Academics have to adapt their practice to this new doxa, often against their will and outside the disciplinary and professional boundaries that guided autonomous academic judgement in the past.

Beyond the University, increasing attention has focused in recent years on the sociological significance of generation as a concept (Pilcher, 1994, 1995; Edmunds and Turner, 2002). This has arisen as (p.14) social analysts attempt to make sense of the differential experiences, expectations, values and opportunities held by people in a context where narratives of class, ethnicity, gender and geographical location no longer seem to provide adequate explanation (Burnett, 2010; White, 2013). The term ‘generation’ is employed in many different ways, according to the academic discipline or branch of the discipline – and we acknowledge that this can lead to a frustrating lack of precision. Indeed, the current prominence of ‘generational’ discussion in policy and media debates often serves to obfuscate rather than clarify, with sweeping claims about ‘Baby Boomers’ or ‘Millennials’ obscuring more significant sociological divisions (France and Roberts, 2015). We are aware that many of the generational frames currently favoured tend to provide a partial and impressionistic snapshot, and do not elucidate the significant factors that might account for expressions of generational difference, or the emergence of a distinct generational consciousness. However, when handled with care, the concept of generation can illuminate not only commonalities and differences of ideas and experience, but also the relationship between these ideas and experiences over time, as they are embodied in the people living and interacting in the present society. This is the spirit in which we engage the concept here.

For social scientists, explains Burnett, ‘generation is a dual concept, referring to both family and kinship structures on the one hand, and cohorts (or age sets) on the other’ (Burnett, 2010: 1). In exploring the experience of the ‘graduate generation’, our attention is drawn, first, to the cohort currently reaching school-leaving age, for whom the expectation to go to University is framed – and how this expectation is reflected among their peer group. But we are also drawn to the importance of the kinship relationship. Individuals do not exist in cohorts alone, but in a network of intimate relationships made up of older and young people, bound by ties of affection, obligation and responsibility. In discussing the experience of emerging adults, whose journey to University also marks a transition point from childhood to adulthood, we are bound to consider their relationship with parents.

There is another crucial sense in which a generational analysis lends itself to the study of University. The problem of generations, as formulated by Mannheim in the interwar years (Mannheim, 1952), is considered as the problem of knowledge: how we, as a society, ensure that the world lives on through those whom we leave behind. This relates to our understanding of how knowledge is transmitted, received and renewed by the interaction between ‘new participants in the cultural process’ (Mannheim, 1952: 292) and the society in which these (p.15) participants are born, develop and in turn transform. One major tension affecting the work of the University derives from the extent to which the status both of knowledge itself, and of those charged with passing it on, has come into question. This is reflected in the deprofessionalisation of the academic and the vocationalisation of academic curricula, and includes, more recently, a focus on the production of generic ‘graduate attributes’ and transferable ‘employability skills’.

Yet at the same time, there remains within Universities the possibility for a genuinely educational encounter between academics and students, in which the generational responsibility of education is carried out: through the production and transmission of knowledge from disciplinary specialists to the thinkers of the future. This is a human, rather than a technical, endeavour, and it is not a one-way street: as Mannheim put it, the generational transaction is such that ‘not only does the teacher educate his pupil, but the pupil educates his teacher too’ (Mannheim, 1952: 301). While we concur with many critical accounts in the existing literature that show how the modern University has limited or even corrupted this core educational purpose, we are also mindful of the dangers of over-stating the extent to which academics and students have fully adopted the instrumental narrative of students as consumers and academics as service providers. In this book, we show how current academics and students remain committed to the idea of the University as a place for the pursuit of knowledge, even as they struggle to articulate why, or how, this should happen.

Our study

The research that forms the heart of this book is a qualitative study, made possible by funding from Canterbury Christ Church University and from the British Academy. The study, titled ‘Generational encounters in Higher Education: The academic–student relationship and the meaning of the University experience’, set out to explore how people interpret what it means to be a student in a British University today, and how their generational experiences frame their accounts of what has changed. The parameters of our study were widely drawn, to allow for the expression of a number of different voices.

We began with a review of the cultural script of ‘the student’, as it is expressed in successive policy documents and the wider literature and cultural products. We wanted to see how discussions about the student had changed, and how this reflected the purpose and meaning of Higher Education. To this end, we analysed seven major policy documents, from the Robbins Report of 1963 to the 2016 White (p.16) Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (BIS, 2011).

We also sought to gain reflections from individuals with experience of Higher Education, from a generational perspective. This element of the study comprised three components. The first was 25 semi-structured interviews with academics and with staff working in student support and welfare, from both pre-and post-1992 Universities in England and Wales. We focused on England and Wales because Universities in Scotland and Northern Ireland operate according to slightly different regimes of funding and regulation. Throughout this book, we talk about ‘British’ Higher Education policy because it does not only relate to England and Wales, but nor does it encompass UK Higher Education uniformly. We sampled academics from a range of age groups, and prompted them to reflect on their own experiences of working in Higher Education, the relationship between academics and students, and what (if any) changes they had observed over time. We selected academic respondents from the Social Sciences and related disciplines, rather than from more applied or vocational specialisms, or from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. As there are major differences in the ways that such subjects are taught and resourced, restricting the disciplinary focus of our study was necessary.

The second component of the study comprised a number of focus groups, with undergraduates from pre-1992 Universities, including those in the ‘elite’ Russell Group, and post-1992 Universities, in England and Wales, and prospective undergraduates – that is, sixth form students (years 12 and 13), from state-funded grammar and non-grammar schools in Kent. We also held one small focus group with Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) – postgraduate students who are involved in undergraduate teaching. We invited participants to reflect on their expectations and experiences. The focus groups were open to students from all academic disciplines. Table 1.1 summarises the characteristics of these focus groups.

The third component comprised analysis of data from the Mass Observation Project. The Mass Observation Project, housed within the University of Sussex, was launched in 1981, and involves a writing panel of around 450 volunteer participants (‘Observers’) of a range of ages, occupations and geographical locations.6 The Observers respond to ‘Directives’ (open-ended questionnaires) sent to them three times a year, which contain ‘two or three broad themes which cover both very personal issues and wider political and social issues and events’ (Mass Observation, 2019). On joining the Project, Observers (p.17)

Table 1.1: Student focus groups


Year of study

Number and gender of participants

FG1, 6th form grammar

Year 12

9 (7f, 2m)

FG2, 6th form comprehensive

Year 12

5 (5f)

FG3, 6th form comprehensive

Year 13

6 (6f)

FG4, 6th form comprehensive

Year 12/13

3 (2f, 1m)

FG5, UG, pre-1992

1st and 2nd

7 (5m, 2f)

FG6, UG, post-1992


6 (5f, 1m)

FG7, UG, Russell Group


8 (6f, 2m)

FG8, UG, Russell Group


7 (5f, 2m)

FG9, GTA, pre-1992


2 (2f)

are issued with a code, which aims to ‘protect their identity and give them anonymity’, and encourage ‘open and candid’ responses. These accounts are open to the public, and can be accessed through the Mass Observation Archive.

One question in the Spring 2004 Directive (Mass Observation Project, 2004: MO 2004) focused on the media discussion at that time about ‘“top up fees” and the whole question of who should pay for higher education’. Respondents were asked to talk about their personal situation with regard to Higher Education, including how their tuition fees and maintenance costs were funded, and to offer their views about Higher Education in general, including: ‘Who should have it? Who should pay? How do you feel about student loans and grants?’ We reviewed the total sample (166) for relevance, and analysed 62 in depth. The 2004 Directive was followed, in 2016, by a further Directive (Mass Observation Project, 2016: MO 2016) inviting Observers to give their thoughts on what Higher Education meant to them, the value they place on it, and how going – or not going – to University has impacted on their lives. They were also asked to reflect on the experiences of other family members, to offer their thoughts about current and future generations, and to give their opinions about whether the fact that ‘more students than ever before go to university’ has altered the value of Higher Education. We reviewed the total sample (181) for relevance, and analysed 96 in depth. In citing Observers’ accounts, we supply their Mass Observation code (for example, W3967), and the year of the Directive (MO 2004, or MO 2016). We also note, where relevant, their age at the time of response; and for ease of reading, we have supplied pseudonyms.

(p.18) As a small study with wide parameters, there are clear limitations to our findings. This was not designed as a representative study, which could present a generalisable or comparative account of experiences, and we have stressed that the student body is heterogeneous. Our aim was, rather, to explore how expectations and experiences of Higher Education are articulated by those currently working, studying or going on to study at University. Even with this small sample, we took care to seek a diversity of views and experiences, from students and academics in quite different educational settings. We were able to draw out a number of themes, while also capturing the divergences and contradictions in respondents’ accounts.

Book outline

Our discussion of generational encounters with Higher Education is presented in six thematic chapters. Chapter 2 critically evaluates the balance between compulsion and choice in contemporary narratives around the University, as scripted by policy documents and critiqued in the literature. In particular, we analyse the cultural script of the ‘student-as-consumer’, and its impact on the academic–student relationship. For young people making the decision about whether to go to University, where to go, and what to study, the process is replete with choices – reflecting the landscape laid out in the 2010 Browne Report, which presented the increase in tuition fees as enabling students to benefit from an enhanced range of choices offered by a competitive marketplace. Yet when it comes to the actual decision to go to University, choice barely featured. This reflects tensions within the logics of massification, marketisation and politicisation as described. Our analysis reveals an iterative reconfiguration of the purpose of Higher Education, through the augmentation of the ‘student-as-consumer’ and the gradual disappearance of the academic as central to the work of the University. As such, deprofessionalisation and waning autonomy are not unintended consequences of policy developments, but critical prerequisites for the situation of Higher Education as the expected next step for increasing proportions of school leavers.

Chapter 3 develops this idea. Here, we draw primarily on accounts from the Mass Observation Study, to indicate the ways in which members of the general public frame the meaning of Higher Education, both in policy terms and according to their own experience. Through an analysis of these accounts, we highlight a central contradiction within the position held by the 21st century University in the public (p.19) imagination. On one hand, expansion is regarded as a progressive development, and there is a striking generosity and optimism in the ways that the provision of this experience for more young people is discussed. On the other, there are widespread concerns about the motivations and effects of massification, including the normalisation of student debt, the diminishing value of degrees, and the quality of education provided. These concerns are also expressed by current and prospective undergraduates, whose accounts are reviewed in the chapter.

Chapter 4 examines the curious disappearance of the academic voice, and its implications for those teaching in Higher Education institutions. Current policy on Higher Education constructs academics as providers of a service to the student consumer. Mechanisms such as the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) explicitly incorporate metrics of student satisfaction and experience into the governance of academic practice. The Higher Education Academy (HEA), now re-named Advance HE, plays an increasingly prescriptive role in the regulation of academics’ teaching methods, and the OfS acts as an official regulator of a sector that once enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. As such, we show how the threat of the litigious student consumer in a competitive market is wielded to discipline the academic. While the imposition of market forces and new forms of governance on academic practice represents an important constraint, the process examined in this chapter is more complex. We explore the extent to which academics internalise the demands of the new Higher Education, and the sentiment that students’ expectations and experiences pose a threat to their academic practice. We suggest that the split between teaching and research, formalised in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and some academic contracts, has corroded traditional notions of the organic intellectual, in favour of an instrumental approach both to teaching and research. In discussing how academics view the schism between teaching and research, we show how the notion of Higher Education as an extension of schooling has gained traction among the academic community, and where this logic is resisted.

We devote Chapter 5 to the difficult, and very pressing, question of the ‘epidemic’ of mental ill-health that is often seen to characterise the undergraduate population today. Claims and counter-claims about young people’s mental (ill) health are made difficult to assess by developments, from psychology and psychiatry, in diagnosis and treatment regimes; the changing role of stigma in discussions of mental health, which may account for both an underreporting of mental health (p.20) problems in the past and an overreporting today; and the relationship between mental health claims and advocacy work. It is clear within the undergraduate population, however, that increasing numbers of students present as having mental health problems; that services and frameworks designed to engage with these problems have evolved rapidly; and that academic staff are increasingly aware of the difficulties suffered by a proportion of their students, which often requires an adjustment in academic practice.

Chapter 5 thus maps a framework for understanding the rise of mental health disorders in the undergraduate population, drawing a connection between broader social, cultural and educational change, and individual psychological malaise. The structural inconsistencies wrought by high expectations, contrasted with actual opportunities and experience, provide the basis for an insecure and individualised approach to Higher Education. Students experiencing high levels of anxiety are encouraged, both by the pressure to succeed and the procedures now in place within Universities to manage high levels of mental illness, to conceive of and present their distress in medicalised terms. We explore the implications for the academic–student relationship, both in terms of the growing expectation on academics to act in loco parentis, and the extent to which the practice of study and the pursuit of knowledge itself comes to be considered potentially damaging to students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Chapter 6 expands on the discussion of generational encounters with Higher Education, by indicating some ways in which present-day students and prospective students articulate their expectations, hopes, aspirations and experiences of ‘going to University’. We discuss the implications for the relationship between academics and students in a context where transition to adulthood is delayed. The cultural script of the ‘student-as-consumer’ presents an aspiration to adulthood that relies on investing in one’s future through gaining a degree. The onus is on the student to demand ‘value for money’, usually expressed through contact hours and the award of a ‘good degree’. To exercise their responsibility in this regard, students are encouraged to take an instrumental approach towards academic work, including demands for ‘spoon-feeding’, and to make full use of concessionary measures. These forms of interaction with academic staff reinforce the sense that students are engaging not as independent, adult learners, but as fragile young people unable to cope with the demands of academic study.

As Universities have become more explicitly situated as institutions geared towards socialisation and the inculcation of a distinct set of values and attributes, relations between academics and students have become (p.21) formalised. A combination of heightened cultural sensitivity towards the causing of offence and distress, and the surveillance and regulation of teaching practice, has had implications for academic freedom. The concern that students’ need for pastoral support and concessions is both provided and regulated has added layers of bureaucratic restriction and accountability to interactions between staff and students. We explore the ways in which these processes impinge on the generational interaction between academics and students, interposing a distance. In this regard, we suggest, the role of guidance and support for students from older adults is undermined at the same time as it is promoted.

In our concluding chapter, we point to the need for future research and draw together the themes that can be traced throughout our book. We show that the University continues to offer students the opportunity to realise their academic potential and is characterised by academic commitment to this project. Yet the elevation of the student and the disappearance of the academic is linked to the emergence of uneasy academic identities for both. Our identification of the wider factors that shape expectations and experiences within the academy contextualises and explains the current mental health ‘crisis’ and the impact that this has on academic workload and responsibility. We reflect on the rise of accountability, governance and surveillance and show how these processes, driven by the imperative to standardise, stymie creativity and reconfigure the generational transaction at the heart of the University.


(1) In 2016/17, the provisional Higher Education Participation Rate (HEIPR) for the UK – an official estimate of the likelihood of a young person participating in Higher Education by age 30 – reached 49.8 per cent, following a steady rise from 2006/07, when this figure was 41.7 per cent (DfE, 2018a).

(2) The most recent widening participation data produced by the Department for Education is focused solely on students under the age of 21, using indicators of relative class advantage. This finds that, in 2016/17, an estimated 25.6 per cent of pupils who had been in receipt of free school meals (FSM) entered Higher Education by age 19, compared to 14.2 per cent in 2005/06. However, this proportion is still lower than for pupils not in receipt of FSM, where Higher Education entry has risen from 33.5 per cent in 2005/06 to 43.3 per cent in 2016/17. There also remains a gap, of around 30 percentage points, between the proportion of students from independent schools and those from state schools progressing to the most selective Universities (DfE, 2018b).

(3) NI Direct (no date) ‘Indicative fees for students starting higher education in 20192020’, www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/tuition-fees

(4) Universities UK states that Universities across the UK generated £95 billion in gross output for the economy in 2014–15, contributing £21.5 billion to GDP, representing 1.2% of the UK’s GDP. In 2016–17, UK Universities employed over (p.22) 400,000 academic and non-academic staff, and educated over 2 million students (UUK, 2019a).

(5) The distinction between ‘pre-1992’ and ‘post-1992’ Universities refers to the structural changes brought about by the Further and Higher Education Act (1992), discussed in Chapter 2. Pre-1992 Universities are institutions that had already been established as Universities, whereas post-1992 Universities were previously constituted as Polytechnics or Colleges of Higher Education.

(6) More detail is provided on the Mass Observation website: www.massobs.org.uk