Everything for Sale?

Guest post by Roger Brown (Liverpool Hope University)

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Everything for Sale? The marketisation of UK higher education argues that the Coalition Government’s higher education reforms are the continuation of a process of marketisation that began with the Thatcher Government’s abolition of the fee subsidy for  overseas students in 1980, and continued with research selectivity from 1986, maintenance loans from 1990, the abolition of the binary line in 1992, the introduction of top-up tuition fees in 1998 and variable fees in 2006. Whilst these may not have delivered a genuine economic market, they have certainly led to a good deal of market-like behaviour on the part of institutions, students and employers, especially as they have been accompanied by an increase in the proportion of higher education that is privately funded.

The book analyses the development and application of market-based policies in four central domains: changes in the composition and structure of the higher education sector; the funding and evaluation of academic research; the funding of student education, both teaching and maintenance; and the quality assurance of teaching. Reference is also made to two other relevant developments: the corporatisation of university governance and the development of sector-wide institutional performance indicators and benchmarks.

There can be little doubt that, as a result of research selectivity, cost sharing between taxpayers and students/graduates, and the increase in the number of providers, UK higher education is far more efficient in its use of resources than it was even ten years ago. This has enabled public and private funding to go much further. UK universities are also much more responsive to students and other external stakeholders, and much more entrepreneurial. This is reflected in the extent to which they have diversified their revenues, to an extent that was simply unimaginable thirty years ago.

But there has also been a downside. There has been a reduction in institutional diversity and an increase in institutional stratification and inequality. This in turn has limited educational innovation, reduced opportunities and damaged social mobility. The effect on quality has been mixed. In both research and student teaching, improvements became increasingly marginal as institutions devoted more resources to compliance and learning to ‘play the game’. Research selectivity has become the pursuit of status, quality assurance has become reputation management, admissions has become marketing, Vice-Chancellors have become fund raisers. The current reforms will reinforce these detriments without any compensating benefits. Perhaps the biggest irony is that what began as an attempt to increase value for money for the taxpayer should have led to so much misapplication of resources, as institutions, staff, students and employers increasingly indulge in wasteful positional competition, pursuing prestige rather than focussing on excelling in the core functions of teaching and research. Above all, increasing institutional competition and consumer sovereignty to make resources stretch further is no substitute for adequate levels of investment, which UK higher education has not had for most of the last thirty years.