Working Out in the Academy? Why the ‘University is like a gym’ metaphor is flawed.

Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster

Since the introduction of fees to UK Higher Education there has been a notable anxiety about the notion of the ‘student as consumer.’ In a ‘market’ where student fees mean they are accumulating substantial debt as they study, there is extensive speculation about both the meaning and impact of this shift in perceptions around student identity and expectations. In a piece for the Guardian, The party’s over – how tuition fees ruined university life, Paula Cocozza tries to unpick some of these issues, from the concern that students now feel ‘entitled’ to demand higher marks, and the omnipresence of employability initiatives, to the possible way this impacts student behaviour. The latter is framed in terms of not taking intellectual risks that could imperil their degree marks, yet simultaneously not feeling obliged to attend classes (being pragmatic or strategic, rather than dutiful). One academic she spoke to talked about his experiences of students in these terms:

At one recent seminar he took, few attendees appeared to know the texts, and when he asked who out of the 24 students had done the reading, only two raised their hands. He sent the others away, and told them to come to the next seminar better informed. But the following week, “The response wasn’t to do the reading. They just didn’t turn up.”

I am puzzled how to square this behaviour with the intensity of application that the undergraduates I have spoken to have described. If a degree matters more now, having cost so much, and its value must be converted to the value of employment, then why skip seminars? “You don’t need to work for a commodity,” Andrews says. “You’ve already earned it because you’ve paid for it.”

The fear that students are now perceiving degrees as something that can be brought has in turn led to people casting around for better ways to conceive of the student’s place within HE than that of a ‘consumer.’ A solution is often posed in the form of the metaphor of the university as being more like a ‘gym subscription.’ For example:

I once heard a colleague use the analogy of a gym membership, which still seems to me the most fitting. While joining a gym is a clear act of consumption, and you expect a certain level of professional expertise and support from the service provider, you would not expect that payment in itself to give you a slimmer, fitter body. That requires attendance, participation and effort. The outcomes are therefore determined not just by the quality of the facilities and the dedication of the staff but by the motivation, agency and actions of the individual.^

This contrasts with the consumer model whereby the student is seen as passive, instead advocating for an active, engaged learner, who shows up ready to develop themselves through action. This model is explicitly seen as preferable to the consumer model, and linked to positive pedagogical notions of ‘students as producers’, whereby it operates as ‘an antidote to consumerist, private good ethos, [and] the notion of the complementary good brings into play the level of co-production or reciprocal exchange between provider and user. The process of co-production gives a greater value to the experience as it entails greater levels of personal input and meaning than simply the passive use of a service.’*

January seems like a good time to be writing on this topic, particularly as the newspaper supplements swell with ‘New Year, New You’ pieces, and the gyms fill with hopefuls intent on a variety of fitness and weight-loss goals. Although the idea of Higher Education fees being less like buying a degree, but more akin to a gym membership subscription is clearly appealing, and ostensibly benign, perhaps the drop-out rates at gyms should give us pause for thought. There are numerous causes for concern about this apparently simple solution to the notion of students as consumers.

Firstly, we might want to be slightly more of mindful of the actual business model of gyms and membership of them. A 2017 survey found that around 50% of gym subscriptions go unused. Another survey claimed that ‘Brits are wasting £37million a year on gym memberships, exercise and slimming classes they never attend’. Far from being something that the gym model seeks to address, the model is predicated on this ‘failure’ rate. They expect, and maybe need, a substantial number of their subscribers to pay and fail. This surely isn’t a good model for the University sector to take too much from. And yet, maybe Universities do this already? Perhaps they offer feedback tutorials, where only a few take them up, and if all students did there would be a capacity issue. Notably, even within this model, the seemingly problematic ‘passivity’ of students is necessary, if not encouraged. As such, this should not be a conscious operating capacity model for a University, where low take up of student support should have the providers reconsidering their approach.

Secondly, the idea that a gym model is an antidote to a more marketised model of students as consumers is surely upset by the reality that gym users are still consumers/clients. They shop around for special offers, compare facilities, and make value-for-money assessments. These may, for some, be seen as legitimate student (and potential student) behaviour, but nonetheless can’t be considered as outside the shopping/consumer model. Those wishing to resist instrumental, commodified educational approaches might be more wary of such corporate business worlds. Furthermore, the gym model is presented as exceptionally individualist and very much to reflect a ‘project of the self’ approach, eschewing notions of education as cooperative and collective, and instead placing all the focus on individualistic goals and achievements. Such an approach seems to lay any blame for failure on the student alone. They are assumed to have failed to use the equipment provided, ignoring any portion of the blame that might sit with the institution via poor teaching, inflexible arrangements for students with work or caring issues, or insufficient support.

Seemingly a further benefit to the gym model is that it is more akin to seeing students as ‘stakeholders.’ That is, they should see attending University as something where they and the staff have complementary and overlapping sets of interests and responsibilities. Nonetheless, the ‘stakeholder’ term is both part of the lexical field of corporate management culture, and simultaneously misleads us into thinking we are on a more horizontal power level with students than is actually the case. Beyond these failings of such a vision or terminology, we might argue that there is a portion of Higher Education staff who really don’t subscribe to the collective ethos that users of such a term think they are advocating for. We can see this from the student-shaming Facebook groups sharing both allegedly-hilarious and/or frequently depressing student quotes, and more general ‘bloody students these days’ complaints, which are definitely more ‘us and them’ than’ ‘all in it together.’

What is clear is that within either a gym model, or a more general, students as consumers approach: students are those getting the blame. Somewhat paradoxically, they seem to end up being framed as both too passive and too demanding. They are simultaneously accused of not engaging sufficiently, and yet having ludicrously high expectations, for example emailing whole drafts at inappropriate times, and demanding prompt response. Either way, it seems students are at fault.

Seeing as we cannot envisage student fees disappearing anytime soon, we might do better avoiding problematic metaphors in favour of some plain speaking. What exactly is it that students are paying for, and what is it that they need? If students are to be consumers, then perhaps they should be critical ones. This is not about making them ‘better consumers’ armed with more market data or league tables, but instead being honest with them about, for example, how many of their tutors are precariously employed and the impact this has on their learning. With rising student needs for support, and the urgent requirement to address student drop-out and completion rates, and most notably BME and class-based attainment gaps, perhaps we need to empower students to do more, alongside staff, to demand that academia works for everyone. This would be an actually collaborative praxis, where the notion of students as stakeholders has genuine influence and becomes more than linguistic window-dressing.



^ Sue Bond-Taylor (2012) Lessons in listening: where youth participation meets student as producer, Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, 4:3, 1-14, DOI: 10.11120/elss.2012.04030004

*Conceptions of the value of higher education in a measured market Tomlinson, M. High Educ (2018) 75: 711.


2 thoughts on “Working Out in the Academy? Why the ‘University is like a gym’ metaphor is flawed.

  1. I think it’s possible I might be the originator of the gym analogy; or one of, at it seems likely to have been recognised independently by others. Certainly, I used it at plagiarism conferences and at the launch of JISCPAS, the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service, which evolved into Turnitin. I can find no previous source before then, where the term was used as an analogy to commitment/engagement in HE. I’d love to be proved wrong, as I regret the flawed assumptions it carries; some identified here quite eloquently. I think now, HE is more like a party – one the students have bought food and drink for, and hired a band, or DJ, to entertain – and yet are stood at the edges, to cool, or scared, or stressed to take part, while the lecturers are all ‘Dad at a wedding’ or ‘grooving round the handbags’, too busy to notice, or wondering why they aren’t enjoying themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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