Ritzer, G. (1996) 'McUniversity in the Post modern Consumer Society', in Quality in Higher Education, Vol 2, No 3: 185 - 99
Universities are sometimes slow to change, but they are likely to become much more like the ['cathedrals of consumption'] -- Disney World, ATMs, shopping malls and the like. As with other postmodern organisations they will come to be 'a pastiche of diverse elements' (185). They will be affected by the growth of the new means of consumption, which have developed to permit constant consumption anywhere in the world. The current mode of organizing the consumption of educational services and goods may be 'decrepit' (186), but it is coming under increasing pressure: it is not particularly efficient, and it does look 'awfully dated, boring and cumbersome' (186).
Students and their parents are approaching universities as consumers, and universities are simply becoming 'another component of the consumer society' (186). Students are completely familiar with the world of consumption before they enter university, and adults students even more so [it would be nice to test this]. Educators are coming to realise this consumer orientation and to think of students as customers, and of education as a product. A study by Levine found that: (a) higher education is not the centre of most students' lives; (b) students want universities to operate 'like their banks and fast food restaurants' (187); students expect basic value for money rather than 'frills and extras'. In short, they want a simple, efficient supply with low costs.
Not all universities will respond to this challenge -- the elite universities will continue to operate as they already do. As a result, 'the nature of higher-education will grow even more class related' [this seems to be a new dimension introduced from Ritzer taking Marxist perspectives on board?]. The 'educational signs' acquired in different forms of provision will also be used to do social differentiation . Other universities may be interested in increasing their borrowing from business procedures, but turn more to the business of consumption instead of to the classic industrial giants [like Ford or Toyota -- no more total quality management or mission statements!!] . They may feel forced to do so as public sources of funding decline, and as student revenue becomes more important. There are also the effects of communication technology which will drive change.
McDonald's Hamburger University and Disney University already offer the kind of pastiche described above, and the Disney Institute is also in the business of providing general adult education [and much more esoteric stuff if there is a market, suggests Ritzer]. The Institute was apparently based on the 'highbrow Chautaugua Institution in upstate New York', but it offers 'highly rationalized infotainment' (189).
A McUniversity based on these ideas would feature a much leaner form of organisation, with increased downsizing and tighter control of costs. It will have to offer 'at least some of the excitement, the color, the fun' (190) found in shopping malls or theme parks. Universities will also have to 'eliminate as much negativity as possible', basically by making it much easier to obtain degrees, including increasing the 'trend towards "grade inflation"' (190). The campus will be decentred into smaller satellites, which may be located in areas such as shopping malls. Advanced technology will making easier to access course-related materials at home. This will permit the international provision of educational materials.
The University of Northern Arizona already approaches this form. It has satellite systems all over Arizona, designed for the convenience of students and with advanced credit transfer. It offers transmissions through cable TV and television, and teaching on the Net. It has reduced its costs accordingly, and only traditional faculty members seem unhappy. [Ritzer seems confident that distance education can be provided at lower cost, but there is considerable debate about this in fact -- he is right in saying that students bear more of these costs themselves]. McUniversities will thus be able to provide 'hyperreal' forms of education -- not just books, but electronic materials with visuals, 'live action shots and comments by the perhaps-deceased author' (192). Faculty will be increasingly casualised, and teaching scripted 'through the use of uniform lectures and ancillary materials' (192) [hints of Weber and rationalization here]. Some academies already exist entirely in cyberspace -- such as the Mind Extension University -- and 'it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish the universities' images from all the rest' (192) [and Baudrillard makes the first of several appearances here].
The main function will be to reproduce knowledge rather than generate new forms. Staff will have little time and fewer resources to generate 'original scholarship and research... [and universities]... will increasingly offer students what they say they need and want, not what is part of some canon. Universities will be less insular; they will be more physically embedded in, and intellectually intertwined with, the community.' (192). University knowledge and commercially provided knowledge will implode, and commercial organisations will respond to the demands of the large educational market, by making education entertaining. There is no reason to believe that only universities will want to hire star professors or celebrity academics to produce distance courses.
Implosion will take place with the production values as well. Baudrillard is cited here to describe a future where there is 'an increasingly simulated higher education... Since education will be everywhere, since everything will be educational, in a sense nothing will be educational' (193). It is quite likely that universities will lose any competition with commercial providers who are more familiar with the technology and with consumerism: commercial consumerism provides the standards which students will come to expect.
Educational will itself become commercialised, characterised by one way transmissions rather than exchanges, and 'the predominance of exchange values over symbolic exchange' (194). Students can be easily monitored and disciplined by giving them smart cards. Students will also do more and more of the work themselves, and this free labour will help further downsizing of Faculty.
A number of responses to these developments might be possible. Some groups might develop rational strategies to resist, or adapt. Thus rational adjustment might involve Faculty becoming skilled in computer technology and televised courses, coping with the absence of any research, casualised teaching and so on. However, perhaps a post-modern response is more appropriate. Baudrillard believes that rational responses are now impossible, since even these can be absorbed into 'the code'. What about irrational responses? Since the developments described above will lead to disenchantment, one response might be to persist with 'more illusion, more games with signs, more seduction, more symbolic exchange' (195), designed to increase the sense of mystery and enchantment. Students might be able to resist by following the same 'fatal strategy' that the masses follow, according to Baudrillard: developing the '"ironic power of withdrawal, of non-desire, non-knowledge, silence, absorption then expulsion of all powers, wills, of all enlightenment and depth of meaning"' (Ritzer page 195 quoting Baudrillard). Instead of seeing students as isolated alienated and repressed, they might be pursuing this kind of fatal strategy.
Silence of the mass of students could therefore be a sign of their power, their determination not to be affected by the information with which they are being overwhelmed. This sort of fatal strategy could lead in the end to the demise of higher education altogether. Like the masses, students are often 'underestimated, but their "deep instinct remains the symbolic murder of the political class"' (Ritzer, 196, quoting Baudrillard again). In essence, silence and resistance of this kind offers an irresistible challenge to universities. Student revolt will not take the form of revolutionary challenge, but a mass overwhelming of the system by apathy 'much like the victory of cancer cells... over the body... uncontrollable, undisciplined, non-dialectical and subliminal' (196) [this is unbelievably fiery 60s stuff from Ritzer!].
'Intellectuals need to adopt an ironic stance towards McUniversity' (196). They too should relish contradictions, offer ironic contradictions and even use 'pataphysics and... science fiction to turn the educational system against itself' (197). Speech is required rather than discourse, and resistors should be patient until the trend towards perfectibility exceeds its own capabilities. 'Admittedly, all these postmodern ideas hardly add up to a blueprint... [but they do]... give those modernists who were interested in taking concrete action a new and different way of thinking about and conceptualising those actions' (197).
The universe of the future will adopt many of the procedures of shopping mall or fast food restaurant. The new consumerism will affect relationships with the university. The section immediately above is there to encourage those who might disagree with these trends.
back to key concepts