Photo by lauren lulu taylor on Unsplash

As teachers, our work is inescapably affected by a range of structural features such as the marketisation and commodification of higher education, the erosion of benefits and of pay, and more. Many of these have been amply studied and debated, including on this blog. Today, however, I want to discuss a relatively underexplored dimension of all this – the slow erosion of trust between staff and students.

In a (higher) education setting, trust is an important value, for several reasons. For one, students are typically young adults and being given responsibility – and being trusted with that responsibility – is an important part of the process of growing up. I’m specifically inspired here by an approach to assessment known as ‘ungrading’. Regardless of the merits of the method, Jesse Stommel’s summary of the core philosophy of ungrading is something that needs to be taken extremely seriously: ‘start by trusting students’.

But it’s also a principled point. From a broadly Kantian perspective, one important aspect of ethical behaviour is respect for others as ‘ends in themselves’. While we all may occasionally jokingly remind each other that students’ brains haven’t fully developed yet, it is important to remember that this does not mean that they lack the capacity for autonomy. Indeed, because of their age, it is perhaps more important than ever to allow them to practice, or exercise autonomy.

The social bases of trust

However, the modern education system actively hinders the development of student autonomy in a variety of ways. This includes a lack of trust: being able to trust, and be trusted in return, is important when developing autonomy. A student who is not trusted to organise their own time, who is not trusted to work hard, and who is not trusted to be academically honest, will likely find themselves constrained in their ability to exercise autonomy (for example, because they’re denied appropriate levels of freedom to do so).

Whilst trust is paradigmatically a relationship that holds between individuals, a range of different social, historical and institutional factors shape people’s ability to trust in each other. (I am, of course, drawing shamelessly on Rawls’ discussion of the social bases of self-respect). They include considerations such as whether people are generally considered to be virtuous and the (perceived) prevalence of cheating, corruption, and generally untrustworthy behaviour. Well-functioning democratic institutions are often correlated positively with higher trust, as well. Finally, oppressive conditions are typically correlated with widespread distrust, in particular between those who are privileged and those who are not.

These ‘social bases of trust’ are crucial to ensure the functioning of a fair, equitable society (or academic community): warranted trust can be considered valuable intrinsically, but also instrumentally, for example because it makes social cooperation possible. In the educational context specifically, trust is essential because it makes it easier for students to trust their teachers’ judgment, for teachers to treat their students as “grown-ups” (who don’t need to be monitored constantly), and for students to trust in themselves.

Commodification and (dis)trust

Unfortunately, the commodification of education encourages an instrumental, even adversarial attitude. Lecturers become service providers, and as a result potential barriers to students’ advancement – for example, when they give a student a low mark, or when they are perceived as ‘obstructing’ or ‘catching out’ students.

A post on the Student Beans Instagram page. Student Beans is a company that offers discounts to students, and has over 140,000 followers on Instagram.

More generally, students may be encouraged to take an instrumental approach to education, which may also result in a general erosion of trust. This can be seen in the many popular Instagram and TikTok accounts aimed towards students which share relatable content about, essentially, doing the bare minimum (these posts are of course often intentionally controversial to drive engagement, and typically elicit comments from students rejecting this kind of behaviour. But these comments are often framed in “value for money” language – if you’re paying extortionate fees, you may as well attend classes – and therefore don’t really counteract the phenomenon).

Indeed, several popular Instagram accounts have advertised the services of essay writing companies to their hundreds of thousands (in some cases millions) of followers. Crucially, even with many comments on each post denouncing cheating, these posts may still encourage a low-level scepticism about fellow students’ intentions and motivations. Someone may well find themselves wondering how widespread this behaviour really is, and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

None of this is necessarily students’ fault. Given the high cost of attending university and the high cost of living, ever increasing numbers of students have to work in order to be able to go to university. This requires students to prioritise their time and effort. The results, however, are the same – a decrease in trust between lecturers and students, and among students themselves, because of an increase in the use of contract cheating, ChatGPT and so on, as well as dwindling engagement levels.

Though students cheat for many reasons, there’s some evidence that suggests that cheating is more likely in classrooms focused on competitive performance, and can to a significant extent be mitigated by pedagogical tools and, bluntly, better teaching. Yet our grades-oriented, commodified educational environment keeps piling on the pressure. It also makes developing better pedagogy increasingly difficult as lecturers have to juggle heavy workloads. Cheating (or even the perception of widespread cheating) naturally undermines teachers’ ability to trust their students, and redirects valuable time and resources to catching cheaters – efforts which themselves, in return, may well have the effect of undermining students’ ability to trust their teachers by making them feel like they are under constant surveillance.

Start by trusting (students, yourself)

It’s not clear how to increase trust in education settings – it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the only thing that will help is a complete overhaul of the system. Of course, this is because the lack of trust is a feature of a bigger, systemic problem.  

It may be difficult for individuals, even individuals working together, to change the whole structure. But we may be able to make small changes to increase the degree of trust in our classrooms, by modelling trustworthiness and by designing class-room activities and assessments with trust in mind. For example, we could decide to move towards an ungrading-inspired approach, or to do away with set reading lists and regular quizzes. Given existing structures and student expectations, it may take time for these interventions to have the desired effect. Students might resist, but that in itself offers opportunities for openness and honesty. This may seem scary at first – a leap of faith – but that is, after all, the point.


Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century aims to feature posts, interviews and case-studies broadly relating to the topic of “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.” A non-exhaustive list of possible topics includes:

  • Accessibility and inclusion;
  • Using new technologies in the classroom; 
  • Intersectionality in the classroom; 
  • Teaching controversial topics and/or controversial authors;
  • Ongoing calls to diversify/decolonise the (philosophy) curriculum;
  • Different ways of delivering typical political/moral/social philosophy education.

Please get in touch with Sara Van Goozen if you would like to contribute.

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge. I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.

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