Higher Education is not The Apprentice, and neither is the ‘Real World’.

Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster. 

Enabled by technology, we were discussing assessment feedback in Higher Education, while watching an episode of The Apprentice*. Although neither us of us are entrepreneurs, or teach business, or retail, courses, what initially struck us when watching the Apprentice was that it offered a certain jouissance of judging others. The viewer gets to comment, in the privacy of their living room, on the competency, or more frequently, lack of competency, amongst the teams, and what personal qualities they display. In fact the joy of judging seems actively encouraged by the way the show is edited, namely to accentuate the less flattering attributes and characteristics of the candidates. In this sense, it has much in common with other Reality TV, be that Four in a Bed, Come Dine with Me, or The Hotel Inspector**.

Aside from the potentially voyeuristic pleasure of judging, what was striking, and seemed to connect with our professional concerns, was the way the ‘Boardroom panel’ offered feedback in the final judging/’You’re Fired’ phase of the highly-structured show. In terms of the mechanics of the show, this is the judging-pay off, the gratification stage, where we see, maybe, those presented as villains get their comeuppance, such is the Soap Opera quality of the show, and Soap Operas are of course the experts in making us wait and wait to see a villain get their ‘just desserts’.

Sticking with the theme of heroes and villains, we agreed that the real star in the UK edition as currently configured is probably Karen Brady, who meets the blither and management-speak of the wannabe-Apprentices with a stern look, and concise, cutting, comment. How we like to see the preening, self-regarding, over-confident candidates cut down to size.

However, beyond its entertainment value, we wondered how much this school of assessing and feeding back on performance, as also seen to some degree on The X-Factor, The Voice, and even, Strictly Come Dancing^, bleeds into educational cultures of performance assessment and feedback. What leads us to wonder this is noticing articles, and ideas, that seem to suggest that when students make repeated errors in their work, the fault, the lack of efficacy in rectifying the recurrent errors, lies in the students’ use of, or response to, feedback.^^ This has also been characterised as a lack of ‘academic buoyancy’ on the part of the student: they don’t deal with the criticism and feedback in the right way, linked to a student deficit model, that we have made reference to elsewhere. In another model, we might be tempted to think that if our feedback is such that it makes students so upset, or anxious, or defensive and therefore unable learn from it – we ought to radically reconsider our feedback practice. As such, although we may take a perverse kind of pleasure in channelling our inner Karen Bradys, casting ourselves as academic heroes and presenting students as villains, this ultimately subverts the purpose of education.  The Apprentice is an entertainment franchise. The boardroom showdown is there to fulfil a role, as we mentioned initially, in the show’s dynamic of hedonistic judgment. It is not what you would call a developmental practice. The candidates don’t have an ‘assessment for learning’ experience.

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A possible objection to this line of thinking might be surely Higher Education isn’t just about development and support, but also about preparing for ‘real world’, and that it is a tough world out there. Of course, it is a tough world, but even the corporate world is not a natural phenomenon. It does not have to necessarily be the way it currently is. Should education perpetuate the notion that the world cannot be changed, and the best we can hope for is to merely reshape ourselves to fit it?

Further to this, as corporate viewers of the Apprentice may well have noted, the corporate, business environment it claims to replicate is also full of coaching, and many businesses want to develop and keep their staff, and Human Resource Management is not merely (probably rarely) shouting, bickering and swaggering. There seems to be in the portrayal of the business world within The Apprentice, an outdated account at play, which only persists in pockets of the corporate world. A few minutes on LinkedIn will reveal the corporate world to be as full of faux mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and mind-set development as the rest of our culture. We may have a critique of these developments, but they are certainly not the macho, ‘common sense’, and nostalgic version of that world that The Apprentice serves to us.

Although Reality TV then, can and does offer an insight into our particular cultural moment, and prevailing attitudes towards success and failure, it is emphatically not a model we should consciously, or indeed subconsciously, adopt within Higher Education. Reality TV viewing can, and must, stay as entertainment. We should consciously decouple it from any pedagogical models of feedback we might be interested in – and use our viewing thereof as a reminder of bad practices gone by, and how not to treat our students.


*The UK version, with Lord Alan Sugar

**This is something that we will return to in future writing, as the notion of jouissance of judging’ seems to permeate so much of our culture.

^You might contrast this with the judging tone taken on shows involving baking, pottery, sewing and painting, but we don’t here.

^^See http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02602938.2016.1202190?journalCode=caeh20 for a piece whose abstract asserts that: “students are fostering self-defensive behaviours that fail to nurture remediation following feedback. Recommendations explore the implications for students who engage in self-deception…” Thanks, but no-thanks for the feedback. Alex Forsythe & Sophie Johnson in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Volume 42, 2017 – Issue 6.

3 thoughts on “Higher Education is not The Apprentice, and neither is the ‘Real World’.

  1. Very interesting article – thanks

    A few comments:

    A few years ago, I had the pleasure of co-supervising an excellent PhD by Richard Higgins which generated articles which are still relevant and quoted, e.g.

    One issue which emerged and which we never had a chance to follow up properly (Richard went off to different career) was the influence of student self-perceptions on their reactions to feedback. For example, students who saw themselves as ‘victims’ (more echoes of the Apprentice?) were very different from students who self-defined as ‘novices’ or ‘apprentices’.

    We have been looking at programme assessment strategies since the PASS project and aim to update this website in the next month or so: http://www.pass.brad.ac.uk
    This sort of approach could offer some ways forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For me a key point is that ‘The X-Factor, The Voice, and even, Strictly Come Dancing’, plus Apprentice are all (highly) competitive – winner takes all.

    Whereas surely in HE we are about encouragement and facilitation of individuals to become truly themselves, and to follow there own paths by thinking through what their options are….


    Liked by 1 person

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