Updated: May 27, 2020
To say that universities are about knowledge is a statement of the obvious. Universities are centres of knowledge production; this is the organizing principle for university work. This is clearly true of the research and knowledge-transfer work carried out by academics, but not necessarily when it comes to teaching and learning. Too often, students are cast in the role of consumers of knowledge produced by others. According to this way of seeing things, student work in the university is not about producing knowledge but about its acquisition.
It is then all too easy to see learning as being about the transformation of acquired knowledge into credentials that can be traded in the employment market. Knowledge production does not, in this case, provide the organizing principle for teaching and learning. Given the fact that teaching and learning is a large part of what universities are about, the imperfect alignment with the work of knowledge production is a problem.
The concept of the student as producer offers a theoretical perspective that can be used for the critique of teaching and learning in universities and as a platform for transformation and a renaissance of the university as a site where teachers and students are partners in the work of knowledge production.
The student as consumer
The student as consumer model is reflected in teaching and learning arrangements that ‘deliver’ knowledge to students in lectures for acquisition and subsequent deployment in an examination. The work that the students are asked to do, writing answers which never see the light of day, is organized with the student as consumer model in mind. This kind of student work makes no contribution to public knowledge. The student as consumer model is also reflected in administrative practices surrounding teaching and learning. These are designed around the idea that teaching and learning takes place in lectures and culminate in an examination. The physical infrastructure of lecture theatres also reinforces the student as consumer model.
The message is that students are not fully-fledged members of the university but are, instead, its customers. Implicitly, students are regarded as deficient, incapable of being full participants in the university’s research endeavours. Teaching and learning are, at best, a preparation for later work, not an occasion for students to work in the fullest sense.
The student as producer model
The student as producer approach seeks to redress this misalignment. It offers a way of thinking about curriculum development that sees students as knowledge producers. The student as producer also contains the seeds of institutional change as administration and physical infrastructure are re-arranged around the idea that student learning is about knowledge production. Ultimately, this can be expected to lead to the recovery of the idea of the university as a site of knowledge production in which students are full participants.
Brew observes that:
‘The relationship between teaching and research is intricately embedded within ideas about what universities do and what they are for. It is fundamental to what is understood as higher learning and to ideas about the nature of the academy. Understanding this relationship raises substantial questions about the roles and responsibilities of higher education institutions, about the nature of academic work, about the kinds of disciplinary knowledge that are developed and by whom, about the way teachers and students relate to each other, about how university spaces are arranged and used, indeed, it raises fundamental questions about the purposes of higher education’ (Brew, 2006: 3).
The student as producer model pursues a new teaching-research nexus in which teaching and learning are aligned with research processes and culminate in the production of some artefact that is a contribution to public knowledge.
Implications for curriculum design: research-engaged teaching
In terms of curriculum design, the student as producer metaphor means that student work is channeled into the production of artefacts that are contributions to public knowledge. Students are recognised as part of the research culture and practice of the university and research-engaged teaching is the organising principle for all teaching and learning at all levels across all subjects. Courses are designed so that, in one way or another, students engage in authentic research projects and see themselves as participants in the research endeavours of the university.
Research-engaged teaching is: ‘A fundamental principle of curriculum design, where students learn primarily by engagement in real research projects, or projects which replicate the process of research in their discipline. Engagement is created through active collaboration amongst and between students and academics, underpinned by the effective use of information resources.’
All about knowledge production
The student as producer approach is driven by a tight focus on two ideas. First, universities are about knowledge production (as a car factory is about the production of cars or a law firm is about the provision of legal services). Universities are, similarly, seen as having their own defining role in the economy and in society. Second, the student as producer perspective is that students are capable of contributing to this work of knowledge production. They are partners in the work of the university. The student as producer idea is knowledge-centred at the level of the institution.
The student as producer emphasises collaboration between students and academics but with a view to carrying out the work of knowledge production. It is not student-centred but knowledge-centred. This may surprise some since it is undoubtedly true that the student as producer approach requires students to develop research and critical thinking skills alongside the other skills and behaviours that contribute to the employability agenda of the university. For that reason, some may prefer to buy into the student as producer approach but do so because it is a way of contributing to student learning, to the development of the student’s identity as a researcher and knowledge worker and to the ‘emancipatory’ development of the student described by Barnett (1991).
Examples of the student as producer in action
Geoverse gives an idea of what student as producer looks like in action. It is an online journal publishing undergraduate research in physical and human geography. It has an editorial board made up of academics from the four participating institutions. Geoverse aims to put high quality student research into the public domain. Reinvention, a partnership between Warwick University in the UK and Monash University in Australia, is an international journal of undergraduate research. Broader in scope, than Geoverse, it welcomes contributions from any discipline. Like Geoverse, its aim is the publication of high quality undergraduate research. Its website explains that it was established, ‘to embrace the notion of academia as a community, with students playing a strong and active role in that community’. The British Conference of Undergraduate Research is an academic conference where all the papers, lectures, workshops and posters are delivered by undergraduate students and present their work.
Student as producer and institutional change
Putting the student as producer at the heart of the university demands institutional change. It needs, for example, to be reflected in the data gathered through student surveys. In general, the institution’s quality assurance procedures and the accounts that it gives of its work to external quality assurance bodies need to provide a reflective, evidence-based narrative of how the student as producer idea is promoted and the results that are achieved. Learning spaces, timetabling arrangements and the allocation of staff time need to be re-thought.
A re-imagining of the university that respects its history
The implications of the student as producer go still further. At a theoretical level, the student as consumer model is open to the criticism that students can come to see university not as a workplace but as a vendor of credentials. An approach to teaching and learning that gives pride of place to the ‘acquisition’ of information does not help students to see that knowledge production is their business. Ultimately, what is needed is a new organizational model of the university that reflects and facilitates the student as producer idea and the notion that students are partners in knowledge production work. The university is re-thought as a place that brings together the resources and conditions for this knowledge work to take place.
This search for a new model for the university led to efforts to create a co-operative university based on collaboration and co-operation. The website of the International Co-operative Movement explains that ‘co-operatives are people-centred enterprises owned and run by and for their members’. The university can be seen as such an enterprise with academics and students as members. The university draws on an organizational model that reflects its core values. This model of the university is then offered to other economic and social organisations as a source of self-critique. The university holds a mirror up to other ways of organizing knowledge production and ownership in the broader economy. If the co-operative university model took hold then one would expect that, over time, this model would have an impact beyond the university.
The student as producer, co-operative model has the great merit that it brings the university back in touch with its historical roots as a place where, as the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University puts it, ‘education is about active engagement of students with inherited knowledge, with new research, with other students, and with more senior academic guides and mentors’ (https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/the-future-of-uk-universities-vice-chancellors-blog, last accessed 1 October 2018).
References and further reading
Barnett, R. (1990) The idea of higher education. Buckingham / Bristol, PA: SRHE and Open University Press
Brew, A. (2006) Research and teaching: Beyond the divide, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Neary, M.(2012) Student as Producer: Research-Engaged Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln, (available at http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/files/2010/11/user-guide-2012.pdf, last accessed 1 October 2018)
Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A., and Derricott, D. (2015) Student as Producer: research engaged teaching – an institutional strategy (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/hub/download/lincoln_ntfs_2010_project_final_report_fv.pdf, last accessed 1 October 2018)
Neary, M. and Saunders, G. (2016) Student as Producer: the politics of abolition – making a dissident institution. Critical Education 7 (5): (http://ices.library.ubc.ca/index.php/criticaled/article/view/186127, last accessed 1 October 2018)
Neary, M. and Winn, J. ( 2017) There is an Alternative: a report on an action research project to establish co-operative higher education. Learning and Teaching: the International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences, 10 (1) 87 – 105.
Neary, M. (2019) Student as Producer: How Do Revolutionary Teachers Teach? Zero Books.