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Are universities McDonald­ized?

Are modern universities at risk of becoming ‘McDonaldized’? Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education at the University of Derby and Director of Academics For Academic Freedom, discusses what this could mean for higher education.

By Professor Dennis Hayes - 23 August 2018

I was interviewed recently for EdSurge, an American technology magazine promoting innovation in education, about my writings on the 'McDonaldization' of higher education. The title of the article was 'As college innovations grow, so do warnings of a McDonaldization of higher ed.'

What struck me during the interview, and in the article, was that the idea of 'McDonaldization' was presented as something new, a 'warning' of what was to come. I have been writing and lecturing on McDonaldization and the danger of creating McUniversities with McLecturers and McStudents for nearly twenty years and the metaphor was becoming tired for me through over-use.

My edited volume that sparked an interested, Beyond McDonaldization: visions of higher education, was an attempt to see how we could re-think the idea of the university. My contribution was to argue for a 'Socratic university' to restore the lost art of argument in higher education. Universities have a duty to 'question and test received wisdom' and not to simply serve up easily digestible nuggets of conventional thought.

The four features of McDonaldization

Talking of 'McDonaldization' appears to still be a powerful, metaphorical way of describing how universities and many other cultural institutions have become subject to the industrial processes of rationalisation that we are familiar with in McDonald's restaurants.

The term was famously coined by sociologist George Ritzer, who identified four features of McDonaldization, which we can briefly illustrate with reference to universities: efficiency - getting more students successfully through the system by introducing new and varied forms of assessment; predictability - through the introduction of standardised modules and credits; calculability - measuring performance in league tables like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and control - particularly of lecturers, through appraisal and mandatory teacher training.

The trouble is that McDonald's are good at McDonaldization, but universities are not. The intention of much of the innovative practices in universities was to ensure that academic standards were consistent and maintained. But, as a result of what I call 'the paradox of McDonaldization', these innovations often have the opposite effect to that intended. New forms of assessment with their 'learning outcomes' and the modularisation of courses have fragmented knowledge, the REF produces more 'outputs' but less original thinking, while teacher training leads not to creative teaching, but to formulaic teaching.

Universities as factories?

Ritzer describes the 'McUniversity' as a dehumanised factory, controlled by the bureaucracy and computers, which process and churn out more and more graduates. But why doesn't the university feel like a factory?

I found the answer some years ago when lecturing on a teacher training course that was competency-based. The trainee teachers all had to provide evidence that they had achieved dozens of specific competencies. On paper it looked like a soulless enterprise but the lecturers 'delivered' the course through what they called 'humanistic' methods that included lots of small group work, role play and even group 'hugs' of a metaphorical kind. Everyone was so nice the production line was rendered invisible! The methods used in McDonaldized universities may seem to be in contradiction to the industrialised processes of graduate production, but in reality they are complementary. They ensure that students and staff have a nice day!

Playing the McDonaldization game

Often the 'Mc' prefix is just used to denigrate something, the most familiar being 'McJob', for a low status, low skilled, low paid job with few prospects. But there have also been some serious studies of McJournalism, McNursing, McPolicing and McReligion as well as the McUniversity. Ironically, part of the appeal of the 'McDonaldization' thesis is that it is 'McDonaldized'.

Anyone can take Ritzer's four bite-sized chunks and apply them to whatever they like. Students might like to play the 'McDonaldization' game with efficiency, predictability, calculability and control and see if they feel their university is 'McDonaldized'. Are there any fries with that degree?

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About the author

Dennis Hayes in the classroom

Professor Dennis Hayes
Professor of Education

Dennis is an Emeritus Professor of Education and the director of the campaign group Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF). 

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