I am fortunate to be in my 15th year of a full-time job at a Canadian university. Over this time, as a faculty member, senator, department chair and associate dean, I have watched a steady, slow and curious transition in the use of language at university away from the word “education” in favour of “experience.” My own institution even launched a “first-year experience” task force designed, as you might guess, to ensure that students are having a good experience. This transition is no accident and can be read first and foremost as a direct consequence of the changing landscape of higher education as traced in the expanding literature on the topic, from Bill Readings’ foundational critique through Benjamin Ginsberg’s “all administrative university” to the recent and lovely call to inaction, The Slow Professor, by Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg.
A key facet of this transition is the repositioning of the student-as-learner to student-as-consumer. This, along with the pressure faced by universities to recruit ever higher numbers of students, is aptly summarized by Jack Stripling in a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Using Louisiana State University’s opulent, man-made “lazy river” recreational pool as his example, Mr. Stripling writes: “The leaders of cash-strapped institutions feel obliged to service the whims and desires of tuition-paying students, whose satisfaction has become ever more crucial as state support wanes.”
The lazy river of the article is one in a series of incentives that, I argue, form part of the rising experience industry in higher education. This industry brings together a conglomeration of staff, services, resources, programs, initiatives and facilities designed to enhance the student experience and guarantee students’ satisfaction. The goal is to entice students to campus and keep them there. If students have a negative experience, they may leave the university early, depriving the institution of much-needed tuition. Even worse, they may make their negative experience public, influencing the choices of prospective and current students, thereby harming metrics of “student satisfaction.” It is therefore essential that the experience industry provides an exceptional, positive experience for its clients.
But what is a positive experience and how does it relate to education? Attending a sports game is an experience as are eating dinner, skydiving, driving a car, going to the doctor and floating down a lazy river. By contrast, university education seems easier to define. It involves formal learning and training through interaction with an expert in a subject area, otherwise known as a faculty member. The two are not mutually exclusive but they are also not interchangeable. You can have an experience without faculty members, but you cannot have an education without them.
The experience industry is typically found in university wings concerned with “student affairs,” “student services” or “student life,” and encompasses a broad range of services including recruiting, housing, dining, recreation, clubs, career centres, and health and wellness centres. At its best, the experience industry provides student with the support necessary for them to complete their education. At its worst, the industry proactively works to identify and remove obstacles that make students unhappy.
The shift away from an emphasis on education to experience has its direct parallel in the increase in size, scope, power and resourcing of this wing of the university. This is not to say that those who work in the area are nefarious or that they are trying to undermine the educational mission of their institutions. Far from it. In my own experience, the people in the experience industry are thoughtful, hardworking and genuinely care about students. However, and crucially, they are employed to provide students with a positive experience, just as I am employed to provide an education.
The problem with all this is that, in the current university environment, a student’s experience is being prioritized over their education. This yields short-term gain in the form of immediate student satisfaction and positive metrics, but long-term pain in a less well-educated and capable citizenry. Many of the problems associated with this shift have been addressed in the sources cited above and in the vast literature on contemporary higher education. Here, I want to stress a particular and paradoxical outcome of the emphasis on experience: that the experience industry may actually be contributing to the problems it purports to remedy.
Before students arrive on campus, they are told of the tremendous stress and pressure that awaits them in university and beyond. This is their first foray into adult life and, if they are to believe what they are told, the road is treacherous, and decisions made now will set the course of their lives. Add to this the repeated (and false) mantra of a “skills gap” in the workforce and the continued denigration of non-STEM degrees, and students arrive on campus primed for a stressful, uncertain future.
As part of the experience industry, the armada of staff and programs in place to combat this situation signals to students that the stress and treachery of the road ahead are very real. Why else would universities have lazy rivers, therapy dogs, 24-hour health and wellness centres, on-site medical and psychological staff, among an array of other services? Why else is a task force required to manage the first-year experience? To be sure, resources to help students in their education have been and should be an essential component of university; however, they increasingly play a leading rather than supporting role on campus.
The emphasis towards a positive experience takes another form as well. Once students arrive on campus, they are encouraged to join a host of clubs, teams, groups and activities to contribute to their overall university experience. Students are incentivized through things like passport programs, the promise of certificates, badges, credentials or even a co-curricular record which tallies a student’s non-academic activities into a dossier meant to supplement job applications.
The message from all this is clear: education is not enough. To truly separate yourself from the masses and to snag the elusive full-time job, you must build your experience profile. Your peers are doing it, they are doing more of it, and they are doing it better. You must do more. And if you find this stressful, avail yourself of the numerous resources on campus designed to ensure your positive experience. It’s an experience feedback loop.
This is the paradox: we know that contemporary students are reporting record-high rates of anxiety and depression, yet we continue to push and incentivize them to do more and more. This not only exacerbates stress and anxiety but deprives students of the thing that is essential for their education, maturation and growth, and which is uniquely available in university: time.
All learners need time to process information, to reflect, think and grow intellectually. Students consistently report being pressed for time and yet we push them to do more outside the classroom and stress the consequences if they do not. We need to re-establish education as the primary purpose of university and give students the time they need to learn. That would be a very positive experience.
Jonathan Finn is an associate professor in the department of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.