Both educational policies and academic literature assume that students take an instrumental approach to their studies at university. However, despite wide-ranging discussions in the academic literature about contemporary arrangements and practices in higher education, empirical examinations of these conditions are notably scarce. This article reports on a comparative qualitative study into undergraduate students’ accounts of studying business or sociology at universities in Britain and Singapore. Drawing on Eric Fromm’s distinction between learning as ‘having’ and ‘being’, the article demonstrates that – regardless of national context – those studying business displayed many elements of passive, instrumentalised, or ‘having’ orientations to learning, whilst those studying sociology showed clear signs of the more active and less instrumental ‘being’ mode of learning. By examining subject allegiance across national borders, this article underscores the importance of recognising subject choice, alongside other important contextual factors, in moving towards a nuanced understanding of student dispositions.
Published: September 2017