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Diploma? Is that with fries?

Are you a McLecturer at a McCollege? Do you train people to work in McJobs? And is your lecturing job a McJob? Low-paid, increasingly de-skilled, yet characteristically demanding in terms of the emotional labour involved - being constantly cheerful, never upsetting students or management, and keeping everyone concerned within their comfort zone?

The social theorist George Ritzer coined the handy term "McDonaldization" to describe the application of fast-food production techniques to broader social and cultural institutions.

It is now so widespread that people talk about the McDonaldization of further and higher education, the Catholic church, the police, the courts, the press and the internet. Even falling in love is a victim since the advent of McDating or "speed-dating".

But how do you know if you or your students have been McDonaldized? Ritzer provides a simple application of the sociologist Max Weber's idea of the "progressive rationalisation" of society to help to digest the difficult theory.

The four criteria are efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. With these pieces of "fast thought" you can play the McDonaldization game with your job - wherever you happen to work. You simply apply the criteria in a mechanical way.

In the case of lecturers, the game goes like this: are you encouraged to be more and more "efficient" and process more students? Are your teaching and your students' achievements increasingly "calculable" and represented in league tables? Are your courses expected to be "predictable" and have standardised modules with clear learning outcomes? Are you increasingly subject to appraisal and regulated in how you teach by staff developers and teacher trainers?

If you can answer "Yes" to most of those questions, then you have certainly been McDonaldized. It's a bit of academic fun, but ultimately as unsatisfying as an intellectual Big Mac.

McDonaldization encapsulates what is happening to FE and links it to populist anti-capitalist critiques of big, successful businesses such as McDonald's.

But Ritzer is very conscious of being criticised as pessimistic in the way he presents his thesis, and well aware that with his critique there comes an air of fatality: FE is being McDonaldized, the process is unstoppable and lecturers can do little about it.

The first step in dispelling this fatalism is to recognise that the process is not all bad. Before McDonald's restaurants spread across the McWorld, there were several restaurants and the odd small chain - one called Golden Egg (I don't know if they are still around). But the existence of these and other greasy spoons was the best argument for putting a McDonald's in every high street.

There is a lesson for lecturers here. McDonaldization only gathers momentum when what is on offer is discredited or not defended. With good reason, lecturers bemoan poor pay and conditions but have put little effort into defending the education and training at the heart of the curriculum. There have been rearguard actions to defend, for example, non-vocational adult education classes. But the defence is always in terms of access, equality or disadvantage to students, rather than of the curriculum itself.

When you forget the really nourishing substance of FE, the subjects on offer in the curriculum, you will lose not only the arguments about pay and conditions but also the ability to teach your subject as a professional. As an expert.

Lecturers know their subjects and have a real strength - should they choose to use it - in being able to oppose, on the ground, all the meaningless McDonaldized language that dominates FE.

Take "learning outcomes", for example. Education is an open-ended activity and there are no "predictable" learning outcomes. Likewise, training - at its best - is training in skilled judgement, not just mechanical skills, and is not predictable. The point can be made over and over at departmental meetings, validations, and to quality managers and inspectors.

It is time to become serious about the defence of the curriculum, and to provide arguments that the McDonaldizers will find it hard to digest.

If the McDonaldization of the FE sector is not challenged, it will get worse. And there is evidence - if people want to see it. Was I the only one to notice that, for a time, Carmel Flatley, the director of human resources and training at McDonald's, was a member of the Tomlinson working group?

All the post-white-paper fuss about Tomlinson ignored the fact that the report was more about packaging than substance. Wrapping up a diminished curriculum - with reduced access to languages and science but with more training for work - in a new "diploma" is pure McDonaldization.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has come in for considerable criticism for not implementing the Tomlinson proposals in the name of an uncertain electoral advantage. Whatever the truth of that, in leaving us with the Golden Egg she may have provided a space in which to make a case for "slow education".

Dennis Hayes edited (with Robin Wynyard) The McDonaldization of Higher Education (Bergin and Garvey) and contributed to McDonaldization: the Reader (SAGE publications)

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