The positioning of students as ‘consumers’ of education is becoming a global phenomenon. This paper begins by drawing on insights from both the marketing and education literatures to assess the impact of this development on the processes and outcomes of education, on the professional practices of faculty and on widening participation. Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual framework is then applied to analyse how consumer mechanisms are mediated by the organisational cultures and practices within universities. These theoretical insights are combined with data from different national contexts to identify both positive and negative aspects of this trend. The paper goes on to consider the critique of consumerism as something that promotes commodification and passive learning. Some other ways of empowering students more actively in their learning, including ‘student voice’ and ‘co-production’ initiatives that are currently fashionable in Western policy contexts, are then discussed. While these are seen by some commentators as examples of ‘pre-figurative democratic practice’, others have identified them as having the potential to alienate students through tokenistic provision or as serving a neo-liberal policy agenda through the ‘responsibilisation’ of students. The paper concludes by suggesting that such initiatives may have the potential to challenge academic complacency without undermining core academic values.
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Bourdieu (1986) differentiates between ‘scientific capital’ which is related to scientific authority or intellectual renown and ‘academic capital’ which is linked to power over the instruments of reproduction of the university body.
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