A Global Shift in How Students See Themselves

Has the fundamental meaning of the word “student” changed? At a small conference in Madrid that attracted participants from countries ranging from Brazil to Russia, that was the most interesting question to emerge.

International conferences on higher education usually struggle to say something new, and the handful of journalists who cover them struggle even more to extract sense from the scattershot of sessions. But at the conference on Reinventing Higher Education, at IE University, which The Chronicle had a hand in organizing, the changing role of students popped out as a clear theme.

Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, picked up the topic in her keynote speech, after noting why universities were not central to the Arab Spring. While that had to do partly with the irrelevance of Arab universities themselves, she said, it also relates to a change in where today’s students go to look for information. They are now as apt to look around themselves in a classroom as they are to look to the front of the room.

With so much information available on so many channels, she said, the public is also less likely to look upon universities as temples of wisdom. In Egypt and elsewhere, a generation of young faculty members who once showed deference to their own professors now have to learn to live without it.

In 1968, students at Columbia University who occupied the president’s office and smoked his cigars were a strong symbol amid that era’s symphony of protests. This year, most of the protesting college students in New York are not on college campuses but downtown, at demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street. “This is not about studenthood any longer,” said Ms. Anderson.

Two student leaders speaking at the Madrid conference were straightforward about what they want. (There is a video interview with the two students here.)

In Britain, Martha Mackenzie, president of the Oxford University Student Union, which represents 21,000 students, said that students at the university are concerned about much more than the recent increase in tuition from 3,000 pounds to 9,000 pounds that occurred after the British government lifted a cap on fees.

The students, she said, want to be seen as partners of the institution, not consumers. They would like to see their professors, not just graduate students, and they want to make sure exams are in line with material they have been told to master.

Those may sound like consumer demands, but Ms. Mackenzie said  the student experience should not be shaped or administered as though students were shoppers looking across store counters.

Tetiana Mykhailiuk, president of Aiesec International, a student group with members in 110 countries, said that students are bearing the brunt of the world financial crisis.

“They are really insecure, and they are really afraid that when they finish university they will not be able to get a job,” she said. While many universities are reciting the “employability” mantra and measuring themselves on that metric, Ms. Mykhailiuk said students need more meaningful internships that give them real accomplishments, not just time in the workplace.

The concern about being prepared for jobs was echoed by Ms. Mackenzie: “At a research-intensive university like mine, there is a tendency to be a bit snobby about that.” An institution, she said, “can stay research intensive and still offer employment training.”

The students offered other starkly different perspectives than those of the university administrators who are regulars at international meetings. The Bologna Process, the accord intended to bring compatibility to European university courses and degrees, is popularly trumpeted as a success and a model for the United States and other nations outside of Europe. Not so for students, apparently. “Every university has its own Bologna Process,” said Ms. Mykhailiuk, who said students found the accord extremely confusing.

With The Chronicle having played a role in organizing this conference, I risk sounding self-congratulatory when I say that including students helped to make the conference more meaningful. But still, I am going to suggest that higher-education conference organizers should regularly consider inviting students or risk being irrelevant to the real concerns of the day.

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