Contra the “McDonaldization” of Higher Education

The term “McDonaldization” was coined by sociology professor George Ritzer in 1993. He meant for it to describe “the industrial process of rationalization that [was] expanding beyond industry into the cultural and educational spheres.”

Ritzer’s term caught on and in 2002, Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard applied it to higher education in a book they edited entitled The McDonaldization of Higher Education.

The book describes the attempt by education bureaucrats to improve higher education through the same processes of rationalization applied to industry, to make the university more efficient at delivering its “product” (degrees) to its “customers” (students).

For Hayes and Wynward, the effects of McDonaldization were negative. The point of a degree prior to McDonaldization was to signal that one had acquired a certain amount of knowledge, but after it, degrees lost their connection to education in a meaningful sense. The point of the McDonaldized degree is just to have the credential needed as an increasingly dubious means to a good job.

Hayes has recently edited a new volume entitled Beyond McDonaldization: Visions of Higher Education. It continues the descriptive and critical role of the earlier volume and outlines potential avenues of reform.

Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby (UK) and director of Academics for Academic Freedom. He has spent years working for reform of the academy in the English-speaking world.

According to Hayes, the ironic effect of the rationalization of the university is to make it irrational. Rather than “passing on the best that is known and thought to students,” the McDonaldized university is increasingly inefficient, bogged down in bureaucracy, and unable to complete its basic function—no matter how many students receive degrees.

Like Hayes, contributors to this volume hail from the academy and the world of higher education reform. All agree both that McDonaldization of the university has detracted from the traditional goal of higher education—the pursuit of knowledge—and that we must return the university to that purpose.

The essays are varied, leaving the reader to ponder a variety of vistas for reform.

Gavin Poynter, Professor Emeritus of East London University, argues in “Beyond Instrumentalism: Why Education is Living on Borrowed Time” that it is ironic that we now treat higher education as instrumental to economic betterment. Students and governments pay enormous sums for little in the way of either marketable skills for individuals or broad economic growth.

He notes that over fifteen times as many students received degrees in the UK in 2010 as in 1960 and the US saw an increase of nearly five times as many students receiving degrees in the same period. Between 2006 and 2015 student debt increased from $481 billion to $1.3 trillion. In a worsening job market, higher education continues to get a boost as the best means to a better job. Poynter writes, “The ideological hold of vocationalism has strengthened as the economies of both nations have continued to stagnate.”

In a similar vein, “Beyond Pragmatism: The Pedagogy of the Impressed” by Austin Williams warns against using China as a model for education reform. Williams is a professor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in China. While many have been impressed by China’s supposed achievements, Williams notes that its utilitarian approach to education has left its students bereft of creativity, taught only a “mechanical skill set” of ironically little value, and encouraged to “succeed” even through cheating. Such reforms leave little room for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Williams notes that China is essentially copying “pragmatic,” instrumentalist reforms in vogue in England and the US. By looking to China for a model, Western education reformers are chasing their own proverbial tail.

Angus Kennedy’s “Beyond McUniversity: The University as it Should Be” and Clare Hornsby and Sebastian Morello’s “Beyond the Secular University” advocate a return to the traditional liberal arts, but they differ as to what that might mean.

Kennedy points to the institutional manifestation of the university from the Platonic Academy to the German system of research and teaching and argues that the common thread that runs through them all is universitas, the one. The university gets its name from its primary pursuit, the attempt to understand the one, the truth, the unifying principle that binds it all together. The university should be a model for society, a community of thinkers of diverse backgrounds and views who come together to analyze and compare ideas, to think and judge for themselves. The Enlightenment best reflected this role for the university.

The university today is in the process of jettisoning academic freedom, the core freedom attaching to the ideal of a community of scholars. The massive increase in students in the UK and the US has dealt a blow to the quality of education and transformed the university from the model the rest of society should follow to a reflection of society at large.

Rather than being a leader, higher education is a follower. The university no longer pursues truth for its own sake. Now it caters to its audience, simply providing a plethora of degrees of decreasing value to an ever-increasing number of students.

Hornsby and Morello reject the secularization of the university as inevitably culminating in something like McDonaldization. The religious impulse at the heart of the Medieval university is at the center of the liberal arts. Only with the restoration of the study of theology and philosophy as the central mission of the university can it return to its original purpose of pursuing truth.

Kennedy, Hornsby, and Morello argue that the best solution is a complete re-founding of the university. This means the founding of new universities, new institutions that would “[find] new answers to the question of how to live together.” These institutions would be devoted to educating, not merely credentialing, their students and providing a model for how society ought to be.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting essay is “Beyond Censorship: Toward a Republic of Science” by Adam Kissel. Kissel, recently appointed Assistant Undersecretary of Education, argues that the pursuit of knowledge at the heart of the university requires structural reforms to protect free speech and free inquiry.

He sees threats to these values emanating from ideology (as the main driver of censorship), government (for distorting the academic environment through funding), and professional organizations (as monopolistic gatekeepers).

Kissel’s solution is a “republic of science.” Drawing an analogy with a constitutional republic where freedom is preserved “through institutional arrangements that set power against power,” he argues for privatization of university funding and decentralization of licensing. As it stands, the government is the primary source of funding and the primary enforcement mechanism of academic licensing. As such, ideological dissent can come with a heavy cost in terms of funding and the ability of academic programs to maintain licensure.

Many professional associations, such as the American Bar Association, have imposed ideological straitjackets on their members. If they are granted a monopoly on licensure by the state, entire professions and their academic counterparts fall under what is in effect government censorship.

Privatizing research would decentralize the sources of funding. Of course, private sources of funding will have their own agendas, but at least they must compete with each other. A decentralization of licensing would diminish the capacity for broad ideological litmus tests, often imposed at the level of the academic department. The problem is not an ideological agenda per se, but that an ideological agenda is given a monopoly on power in the university, especially through the coercive force of government, whether in funding or in licensing.

By definition, universities subject to ideological agendas are not in the business of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Kissel’s proposal for a “republic of science” would remove the institutionalized sources of ideological agendas that distort research and suppress academic freedom in the university, but nonetheless provide a means whereby research can be funded. That would bolster the ability of the university to be the place where knowledge is pursued, no matter the perceived ideological character of that research.

Hayes explores what he calls the “therapeutic university,” a by-product of the McDonaldized university. He sees the therapeutic turn in the university as “complementary” to McDonaldization. As universities became increasingly concerned with their market value and began to treat students like commodities, the need for dealing with their “ontological angst” became apparent.

The goal of the therapeutic university is not to educate students, but to make them comfortable, which means stepping into the role of therapist. But if universities’ primary goal is to serve as sources of therapy and comfort for students, then they must reject the traditional notion of the university as the place where knowledge is accumulated and disseminated.

Knowledge, after all, can be offensive, contributing to “ontological angst” by challenging students’ assumptions, and making students aware that they’re often wrong. A university concerned with therapy is a university unconcerned with disseminating knowledge.

By the end of Beyond McDonaldization, the need for reform is clear, but the path back to the university’s founding purpose, the pursuit of knowledge, is still in doubt.

  • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

    I’d take Kissel’s point one step further — let the states accredit institutions.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Absolutely not!

      When Florida implemented its Master Plan for a system of junior colleges, it had a tiny office of a few staffers accredit all the new 2 yr schools. As soon as possible, the last of the schools was weaned-off the state-based system about 1965 for a number of reasons.

      First, regional accreditation would offer Florida students the opportunity to transfer their credits out-of-state. The move to regional accreditation was done for the benefit of Florida’s students, and staff were unable to keep up with the growing demands of accrediting such sprawling geographic state.

      Regional accreditation also has a higher prestige value than state accreditation. State auditing staff always struggled against the perception that they were being “soft” on their own state’s institutions, with biases and conflict of interest problems. Regional accreditation minimizes these issues, it widely believed.

      Some of these issues are turning up in discussion of Arkansas’ decision not to seek regional accreditation for its new online school.

      • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

        My issue is that the regional accreditors have the same kind of harmful monopoly that the ABA & APA have nationally, with the same effect of government censorship.

        I understand your point, but I’m trying to distinguish between ability to receive Federal funding (i.e.student financial aid) and institutional reputation. If the SACSCC mandates the wearing of purple polka dots, this becomes a de-facto government mandate due to the FinAid implications — and SACSCC is free to do this, as it is not bound by the First Amendment.

        Hence I want the states, which are, to be the ones licensing the institutions. Much like states licence hospitals.

        Furthermore, the “Full Faith & Credit” clause ought to apply to credit transfers. much like it does to high school diplomas. And for a student transferring to Massachusetts, how is SACSCC accreditation inherently different from FL accreditation?

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Thank you. I am trying to grasp your point, that Title IV eligibility differs from institutional prestige and reputation? Right? I am not sure what this means in terms of 34 CFR 602, the statute that regulates membership associations recognized by the Secretary of Education.

          Are you familiar with ABA accreditors, and how NACIQI recently beat them up — based on the public perception of decline in certain law schools’ reputations? I believe the recent case with the ABA shows that, at this level, reputation DOES matter. Another recent example is ACICS, which is losing its recognition. ACICS was the largest accreditor of online schooling in the nation, but massive fraud and scandals caused its decline and collapse.

          Please provide more context re: your SACS example, which obscures the underlying political ecology, the internal politics of membership associations which, since 1992, have been tasked with quasi-governmental functions. Even if the power elites that hold the reigns of power at SACS mandate something that contradicts the stated mission of your institution, established case law prohibits such meddling. (Some years ago, HLC decreed a religious college do something that conflicted with the schools’ avowed mission, and the courts upheld the school’s rights in this case.) At the other end of the spectrum, all associations are membership associations, and support the interests of their members. They are also called “peak associatons” for this very reason.

          Much depends on the power politics of your school, its history with the accreditor, the social networks of reviewers and who has served on SACS’ boards over the years. Schools often push-back against SACS reviewers, and succeed. The review teams themselves are often quite diverse and poorly trained, one reason a staff member always attends the review.

          So, without context, there are numerous reasons for issues that you describe.

          Credit transfers. Any school can accept or reject credits from any other school, as long as it is in keeping with the schools stated policy. 34 CFR 602. This is according to the federal statutes, and a good example of respecting school autonomy — precious in the eyes of history and government since the Dartmouth decision.

          For your transfer student, they are facing many uncertainties, and need to study the transfer policy of the school they wish to attend. The receiving school is holding all the cards. Also, there is no such thing as FL accreditation. Do you mean being licensed by CIE?

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            >”I am trying to grasp your point, that Title IV eligibility differs from institutional prestige and reputation?’

            Absolutely, and this predates Tittle IV — it goes back to the GI Bill. Harvard and Mass Aggie (now UMass) differed vastly, but the Vet could go to either. There is an inherent difference between Title IV eligibility and, say. AAU membership.

            Congress made a mistake in granting monopolies to regional accreditors, I’d like to see competition to prevent the very issue Kissel mentioned. Also, in terms of need, what government money should be spent on, I’m not sure they are the best ones to be determining it.

            Case in point, MA College of Law v. the ABA.

            I know there is no FL accreditation, I was trying to make a point,

            My larger point is that if Title IV money is used to pay for a course, all other institutions accepting Title IV money should be REQUIRED to accept that course as transfer credit. Congress should mandate this as the taxpayers should not be paying twice for the same course.

          • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

            Okay. Yes, the ABA is absolutely a government-sponsored monopoly, and as such, successfully limits membership in the guild. It is, after all, a membership association that establishes standards that its members must meet to be accredited. That’s the first problem.

            The second problem is that Congress wanted it this way, and is not about to change its mind any time soon.

            Colonial Virginians studying at the Inns of Court returned to their home state, and immediately petitioned the House of Burgesses for a monopoly charter to practice law. Apparently, they were applying lessons learned in England, that special privileges for guilds from the legitimate government are highly beneficial. Not for citizens, but for members of the guild.

            PS. The case you cited was dismissed because it was the wrong venue. Duh! Law schools should know better.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Florida hospitals are licensed by the state, and it is very rigorous. Nothing like HEA accreditation at all.

          Notice how Joint Commission accreditation satisfies the requirements, but does not eliminate on-site inspections.

          The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) accreditation process bears little comparison with higher education accreditation. The former is on a 3 yr cycle, with unannounced reviews, every 2 yrs for labs, while the latter has a 10 yr cycle without unannounced reviews. The former is rigorous, and focuses on patient outcomes like life and death, and the latter need not be rigorous.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      You will be happy to know that the ABA is facing significant pressures to shut down poorly performing law schools. This exchange from last summer’s NACIQI hearing says it all:
      MR. KEISER: Over the past five years how many institutions have you withdrawn your accreditation from?
      MR. CURRIER: Zero, zero.

      The transcript goes on:
      MR. KEISER: Yet in Florida I read about institutions with very low pass rates. Is it a kind of a that moveable standard that the pass rates I mean some of the rates I saw in the 30 percentile now I don’t know if that is true or not I don’t believe the press most of the time. But those seem to be published rates of a number of institutions with fairly low pass rates.
      MR. CURRIER: And I don’t want to seem defensive at all about this and my wife always says watch your tongue so signal when I’m — what you see in the press is usually first time pass rates so what you don’t know is if the school has 30% or 50% or 70% first-time pass rate, you don’t really know a year later what that pass rate is so that’s one point the reports are a first-time pass rate information because that is what the bar examiners make public…..

      Or this, from a well-regarded former regional president, where he trashes the department’s staff report, and eventually cites the ABA for even greater violations! The knives are drawn, and these folks want ABA blood!
      MR. WOLFF: “The more important question to me as I understand it the Agency was last recognized to continued recognition 2011. Since 2011 there have been numerous articles about fraud in placement rates reported by law schools and misrepresentation to students and I didn’t see anything in the report how staff and I’m going to be asking the Agency how has the Agency adapted to that.
      This is a matter of very public discussion so number 1 is the whole legal profession has gone through tremendous upheaval and huge reductions in enrollment, huge deficits by law schools, under admitting students — the New York Times just had a major two-page spread on this whole issue on Sunday, admitting students who are less qualified and therefore perform very much less on the bar exams so this is a case where I see documentation doesn’t get at the reality so that’s number 1 and the enormous loan rates of law graduates and salaries are no longer keeping up because the jobs aren’t there in the legal profession.
      So I am just wondering was that a focus of the review given the widespread public information about this and where would I find it if it was because I didn’t see it in the document, in your analysis.”

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I am happy to read about McDonaldization in higher education, for several reasons.

    Modern sociology owes a significant debt to Max Weber, the thinker interested studying the “rationalization” process, i.e., bureaucratization. Your review does justice to the increased pessimism and despair about higher education, particularly in regard to its rampant credentialism.

    Contemporary credentialism, which is increasing, has been compared to Cargo Cult thinking about the magical effects of obtaining a degree. I wonder if anyone is discussing or studying what will happen once disbelief in such magical effects becomes widespread. Let me make a comment, that given the present conditions, reform is out of the question. Instead, we need to be thinking about the nature of the social institution that will eventually replace higher education.

    Apprenticeship was the prevailing social institution for youth before higher education took hold — but faded and collapsed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of wage labor. By 1840, it was virtually extinct. Gradually, higher education took over some of its social functions, but was transformed in many ways, as we now know.

    As Laurence Veysey described in The Emergence of the American University, it was “rationalization” that enabled the kinds of Empire building that followed the 1880s, associated with names like Charles Eliot, Nicholas Butler, White, Angell, Harper, Jordan, Kirkland. All were skilled bureaucrats.

  • bdavi52

    We use “McDonaldize” as a curse, as a criticism, as an indication that the University has obviously failed it’s primary mission if & when it embraces “McDonaldization” — but that’s patently not true.

    In fact it is the University’s failure to truly understand “McDonaldization” which drives our current crash & burn, particularly as that false understanding has been used to reshape the ‘business’ of Higher Education.

    McDonalds succeeded, thrived, and came to dominate the market NOT because it ‘rationalized’ it’s production process, providing it’s product to customers more efficiently….but because:
    1) it recognized EXACTLY who the customer was
    2) It recognized EXACTLY what that customer truly valued
    3) it locked down & guaranteed the quality of that deliverable …and THEN….
    3) it made the process fast & efficient & reliable

    What the University failed completely to recognize is what the customer truly valued. And that failure goes hand-in-glove with the parallel failure to truly recognize who, exactly, the customer of Higher Education actually is.

    And very definitely that customer is NOT (and never has been) the Student/Graduate (who is, in fact, the ‘product’ delivered). Rather the customer is Society, the wider World, the Future.

    The ‘product’ we deliver is not an Education…and it is definitely not a Degree… rather it is an Educated Graduate, a Competent Young Adult, someone who has demonstrated a given mastery of any number of so-called ‘critical thinking skills’ and is prepared to apply them. This is exactly what our “customers” expect, want, and desperately need….and that is exactly what our Institutions of Higher Education have been increasingly unable to deliver.

    We have not ‘McDonaldized’ education — if we had, we’d be ‘delivering’ brilliant and highly competent graduates at a record pace to a World which happily embraces such knowledgeable talent. Sadly, what we have “McDonaldized” is our degree delivery process….and that is, in fact, what we have been providing to our increasingly frustrated customers.

    Millions upon millions of young people holding a degree which means increasingly nothing.

    Obviously (and tragically) that was our misunderstood “McDonalds” goal. It must have been. Why else would we have so eagerly & consistently sacrificed the quality of our entrance standards to make sure we were enrolling a critical mass? Why else would we have sacrificed our curricular standards to allow all these under-prepared & distinctly unmotivated students to take and pass totally meaningless & undemanding courses? Why else would we have sacrificed our graduation standards to guarantee larger and larger crowds of degree-holding 21 yr. olds who can’t compose a sentence or handle basic arithmetic?

    And so we graduated them. That they were woefully unprepared to negotiate the Real World with its expectations that they should be able to read, write, think, calculate, and produce quality output on time (moving that proverbial needle) — well, that’s a separate issue.

    It’s as though McDonalds became convinced that what was most important to its business was getting people through the Drive-Thru quickly….and sacrificed the quality and consistency and reliability of its meals to buy Drive-Thru throughput.

    If they had done that, of course, they would have failed. And “McDonaldization” would not be a name assigned to ‘process rationalization’.

    In the end, yes, we must agree — the need for reform is clear. But an essential part of that reform is not rejecting the notion that we need to become better and better at delivering what our customers most truly value (which is a highly educated and highly competent graduate) — THAT is absolutely essential. Rather we must reject the horribly warped understanding that what we are supposed to provide is an inarticulate mass of degree-holding aged teenagers who can’t ‘critically think’ their way out of a wet paper bag. That is not ‘McDonalds’ that is the McDonalds Wanna Be who misunderstood what was happening at the Golden Arches.