Mickey Mouse has been an international cultural icon for over ninety years. His image has been the trademark of the Disney Corporation since 1928 and the translation of his name is an global byword for fun ( Микки Маус, 米老鼠 , ميكي ماوس ).
Inexplicably, since the nineteen seventies, “Mickey Mouse” has also been a slang expression for poor quality goods, counterfeit, triviality and amateurishness. Margaret Thatcher once disparaged the European Parliament as a “Mickey-Mouse Parliament”. Urban dictionary has many similar examples including entries referring to individuals, jobs and organizations.
About eighteen months ago, Pok Wong, a 29-year-old student from Hong Kong reached for the expression when she came to evaluate her BA in International Business Strategy from Anglia Ruskin University. Although she graduated in 2013 with a First-class degree, she characterized Anglia Ruskin’s offer as a “Mickey-Mouse course”. Her complaint was that the institutions prospectus “fraudulently misrepresented” the business course and “exaggerated the prospects of a career”.
Nothing much may have come from the evaluation had Pok Wong confined it to an Anglia Ruskin feedback form. However, Ms Wong sued. The County Court of Central London ruled against her and awarded the University £13,700 to cover their legal costs. She had had her day in court, an appearance on the BBC’s Daily Politics, and considerable national and international social media coverage. She then disappeared for a while.
I’d come across the “Mickey Mouse” bon mot in education a couple of times before. A university I visited in 2009 had moved from their ‘old system’ of calculating a degree classification to a new one which didn’t factor a student’s lowest marks into the overall average. The idea behind the ‘new system’ was to better-reflect student successes by producing more 2:1s and Firsts, and was thus good for the international market. Unfortunately, the new system was referred to as “Mickey Mouse” – at least until the quality team cracked down on the phrase as being inappropriate.
I’d seen another application of the phrase in the early-2000s with courses designed to recruit students from overseas. Business School degrees, to give an illustrative case, have strict requirements to ensure students can cope with the academic language used in the course input and assessments, but a hurdle to recruitment. It was possible to repackage courses aimed at home students to add “International” to the title as in “International Golf Course Management”; to lower English language requirements; and (the key point) to run a parallel cohort of international students on different lines to the regular Golf Course Management BA. The practice was quickly denounced as “Mickey Mouse” and the parallel international offers were confined to nineteenth-hole reminiscences.
The phrase was picked up again by the press last week when talking about the government’s review of FE and HE education. Philip Auger doesn’t use “Mickey Mouse” in his Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (May 2019) but the headline writers do. Auger says, “We make recommendations intended to encourage universities to bear down on low value degrees and to incentivise them to increase the provision of courses better aligned with the economy’s needs.” The Daily Mail summarizes thus: “Universities offering so-called Mickey Mouse courses could have their fees slashed from £9,250 to £7,500”.
We might dismiss the use of the phrase as simply a lazy way of referring to things we don’t happen to like. But issues of facilitating grade inflation, lessening learning objectives, reducing contact time, and lowering entry requirements are behaviours we ought to be on the watch for and are right to satirize. When the watch hasn’t been effective enough the courses are called “Mickey Mouse”.
These issues are connected to, but distinct from, value-for-money and the distinct value of Education. Many students may not be able to articulate fully how a quality education is related to value for money. Universities can help with that. For international students, I feel we have a responsibility to make the UK HE’s international offer both first class on its own terms, value for money, and of international, internationalist value.
I’d almost forgotten Pok Wong when this weekend she returned to the headlines. The news is a shock. Anglia Ruskin University’s insurers have settled out of court with her and handed their International Business Strategy alumnus just over £60,000. We have to rely on press reports for any information about the updated story as it’s out of court; however, it seems to have been £15,000 in damages and £46,000 in legal fees. We also have no information about the reasoning behind the settlement. The university does not seem to have approved, or approved of, the insurer’s move.
An editorial in the Telegraph did welcomed this weekend’s result: universities must be clearer about their offer and their ability to deliver it or find themselves in court. That’s business, nationally and internationally.
We can leave the last word to Pok Wong, the international business student. She told the BBC in 2018,
“They think we’re international students [and] we come here to pay our money for a piece of paper, for the degree. But actually, we care about the quality, we care about how much we could learn.”
We care about the quality; we care about how much we learn.
I do like Mickey Mouse. And I’m sorry his name is linked with poor quality goods, counterfeit, triviality and amateurishness. To make something positive of this cultural icon’s negative connotations, curriculum designers could re-claim him as a Quality Icon: as a desk-top reminder to strenuously avoid having his name linked with UK HE and their own course offer.