Stefan Collini on marketisation of HE

Stefan Collini, (author of “What are Universities For?” in which he challenged the common claim that universities need to show that they help to make money in order to justify getting more money and argued that we must reflect on the different types of institution and the distinctive roles they play) has published an essay in the London Review of Books entitled “Sold Out” which is a review of “Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education” by Roger Brown, with Helen Carasso and “The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education” by Andrew McGettigan.

This is a fascinating and detailed analysis of the rushed experiment being carried out on the English higher education system, and is timely after the last week’s BIS announcements about removing designation from a number of private colleges, who were otherwise consuming more of the student support budget that originally anticipated.

Collini clearly worries about what has been done in very recent years to UK HE:

“Deep changes in the structure and dominant attitude of contemporary market democracies are everywhere putting pressure on the values that have sustained the ideals of public higher education. Unfortunately, the UK has put itself in charge of the pilot experiment in how to respond to these changes. Other countries are looking on with a mixture of regret and apprehension: regret because the university system in this country has been widely admired for so long, apprehension because they fear similar policies may soon be coming their way. In many parts of the world English higher education is, to change the metaphor, seen less as a useful pilot experiment and more as the canary in the mine.”

He writes about the change in the market, and the desire of government to create a “level playing field” to encourage competition:

“Anyone who thinks the change in 2010 was merely a rise in fees, and that things have settled down and will now carry on much as usual, simply hasn’t been paying attention. This government’s whole strategy for higher education is, in the cliché it so loves to use, to create a level playing field that will enable private providers to compete on equal terms with public universities. The crucial step was taken in the autumn of 2010 with the unprecedented (and till then unannounced) decision to abolish the block grant made to universities to support the costs of teaching – abolish it entirely for Band C and Band D subjects (roughly, arts, humanities and social sciences) and in substantial part for Band A and B subjects (roughly, medicine and the natural sciences). From the point of view of private providers, that change removed a subsidy to established universities which had hitherto rendered private undergraduate fees uncompetitive in the home market. Now that every type of institution offering these subjects is largely dependent on student fees, the way is open to rig the market to drive down the price.”

W can clearly see the effect of one of these changes this week. Reports show a huge unanticipated increased spend by BIS on loans for students of HNCs and HNDs at private providers, with a knock on effect that a numberof private colleges have just lost their designation status to prevent them recruiting further.

Collini also discusses the idea of “reform” as described originally in the Browne report, and says

 “the implication is that there is something wrong with the present arrangements that these changes will put right. And the logic of such reform is to reclassify people as consumers, thereby reducing them to economic agents in a market. The cunning of government propaganda, in higher education as elsewhere, is to pose as the champion of the consumer in order to force through the financialisation and marketisation of more and more areas of life. Who do the student-consumers need assistance against? Who is preventing them from getting what they want and therefore should have? Universities, it seems.”

An interesting analysis follows of the impact of tuition fees – and how a potential student might perceive the difference between £8000 a year and £9000 a year. In terms of paying back teh money, there is little difference that an 18 year old might plan for. However, a rational decision  might be to opt for the institution that might be investing an extra £3000 in their teaching and learning experience. Collini concludes:

Overall, therefore, the price differential is a phantom factor that says more about a university’s confidence than it does either about the value for money of particular courses or (to any great extent) the future financial burdens of the graduate.

And when he considers the rate at which graduates pay back loans, he notes the following:

It will be no surprise if, after a while, there are statistics for graduate repayment rates not just from different universities but from different courses. If a particular course shows a very low repayment rate, why not harness ‘anti-scrounger’ sentiment and cease to treat it as eligible for publicly backed loans? The joke is that a fee system is justified, in coalition rhetoric, as making universities more independent. The reality is that it may provide an alternative lever by which to force ‘market’ judgments on universities in deciding which courses to offer.

This of course is the opposite of that from the recent UUK report on UK HE finance, where it was suggested that “public funds should be used to provide support for those students and courses where investors may not see a return”.  In either scenario there has to be a worry about how some subjects and their students will be funded in a brave new world, if study and learning cannot be reduced to a set of purely economic returns.

It’s a long article, but I recommend reading it – and McGettigan’s book is now on my reading list.