Business criteria, not education or the public good, drive what marketised universities do, writes Luke Martell. Universities are restructuring for the new era, ploughing money into marketing and glitzy buildings, designed to appeal to applicants as much as function for those that use them. It’s a revolution in what the university’s about, and a counter-revolution is needed.
In 2010 the UK government announced 100 percent cuts to the funding of most teaching at universities. To fill the gap, students’ contributions to fees in England trebled widely to £9000 a year or close to that. 12 years earlier higher education had been free. The government say the changes are necessary for deficit reduction, the reason also given for cuts and marketisation across health, welfare and local government.
But these cuts are not necessitated by budget deficits. Tuition fees, already low, are being abolished in Germany. In the UK there isn’t less money involved. It’s just that students cough up rather than taxpayers, without getting more for the greater contribution they make. Loans and defaults might actually cost the government more. And students could find interest rates hiked, so their debt is retrospectively increased.
The marketisation of universities is a political choice, made without a democratic mandate. Changes are in line with conservative ideology to reduce, privatise and marketise the public sector. They alter what a university and society are all about. It’s argued that working class applications haven’t been hit by students paying fees. But the data’s flawed. Since the Robbins Report more people from all classes are going to university but the relative chances for working class people have reduced.
Universities are being allowed to recruit more students with top A level grades. These individuals are usually from higher class backgrounds and disproportionately go to elite universities. So the well-off are being given extra spaces, on top of the advantage they already have. And the elite universities they apply to are being allowed to pull further away from the rest of society.
At my university, I’m not asked any more to develop courses to fill an educational gap or for the public good, rather only to get fee income in. Fees combined with education-for-employability and internal markets mean that universities are cutting areas such as adult education and expanding in subjects like business and management.
Universities is one thing Britain does well. But continental universities are beginning to look more attractive to Brits than UK universities do to overseas students witnessing high fees and anti-immigration policies.
Public universities remain theoretically not-for-profit. But the government are changing regulations for what you need to qualify as a university, to encourage for-profit providers to set up shop, subsidised by taxpayers money providing loans for their students. Government contributions to fees had allowed public universities to charge less than private providers but that disadvantage for for-profits has gone. We now have what are effectively two for-profit universities, the University of Law and BPP. A year ago there were none.
Universities are restructuring for the new era, ploughing money into marketing and glitzy buildings, designed to appeal to applicants as much as function for those that use them. Investment in the marketised university is funded by cuts elsewhere, outsourcing of staff to for-profit companies where typically pensions are poorer, like pay and conditions, and there’s greater job insecurity. For those kept in-house, employers are scaling back job security and academic freedom in university statutes, pay is on the decline and hours long. Outlay on student recruitment is increasing at the expense of spending on staff and students.
Changes are being introduced by managements who restructure governing bodies to close down the influence of staff and students. Consultation is replaced by ‘engagement’. This means consumer-style surveys rather than democratic discussion. 2,500 managers and top staff at UK universities earn more than £100,000 a year and senior management salaries rose by an average of £5,000 at the last count. Vice-chancellors rake in an average of £250k a year. Other staff have had their pay cut by 13% since 2009 and more than 10,000 university employees earn less than the living wage, many on casual contracts with no guaranteed work.
Community is affected as staff and students are treated not as citizens of the university but recipients of top-down instructions, producers of value and consumers. With outsourcing, universities host the employees of different companies, cost-reduction taking priority over commonality. Quantitative measures are seen to represent quality-hours that students work, for instance. Judgment of universities by the income their graduates earn is being encouraged. Because family background is a key factor, this incentivises elitism in intake over quality of education.
It’s not as if we haven’t been warned. Chilean students have been braving tear gas for years to make their point about the privatised education system. For-profits in the USA put more revenue into marketing and profit than student support and teaching. They’ve been accused of bullying and lying in recruitment. Income gets diverted to multi-million dollar CEO salaries. Their students get state loans, one fifth defaulted on, at the expense of the taxpayer. At the University of Phoenix, the priority is enrolments. What happens next is less well resourced. 16% of students graduate. 95% of its tutors are part-time.
Business criteria, not education or the public good, drive what marketised universities do. Economic criteria get precedence over what’s good in human terms. Unequal opportunities for applicants and students, and between universities, and managers and their employees, are widening. Managers impose, push out staff and student unions, and side-line consultation. Community is broken up by inequalities, the exclusion of university members from citizenship, and the fragmentation of the workforce with outsourcing.
It’s a revolution in what the university’s about. The Labour Party started it all and have no alternative. Academics are often passive and individualised, while some speak out. Trade unions could fight back if they decided to. Student direct action is way ahead of the game. Whoever does it, counter-revolution is needed; for human values of education, equality, society and democracy.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Luke Martell is Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sussex. You can see his profile here.
Universities have always competed to attract more students.
With increasing marketisation, they often don’t offer courses that students actually want to take. Courses that students want to take (or would be useful or fulfilling for them and society) are being closed down because they are insufficiently profitable, eg in adult education.
I’m not opposed to students taking degrees that are useful in the world of work, but the impetus at the moment is what gets fees in not especially what’s useful in the world of work. Insofar as employability is becoming more important, what’s educationally valuable or what fills a gap in knowledge or is socially useful is being pushed out. Great scientific, intellectual and social advances in societies won’t happen if we focus just on what’s good for employers.
Graduates working in supermarkets. That’s not because their degrees don’t give them skills. That’s because of the state of the labour market, which results from the financial crisis and austerity policies.
I’ll be brief
Professor Vignoles doesn’t dispute the numbers I cite, she can hardly do so because they come from her own presentation. They show that during the post Robbins period, up to 2000, social class relativities in entry to higher education in the UK decreased.
She now cites Machin & Blanden’s work on the cohort studies to support the claim that relativities increased (and shifts ground from social class to income percentiles – which we can all agree are not the same things).
Taking M&B’s figures the relative risk of HE entry (top 20% v bottom 20%) are as follows for the 1958 NCDS, 1970 BCS and the 1991 BHPS pseudo cohort: 3.3, 5.3, 5.1. The odds ratios are: 3.9, 7.8, 8.6.
What I conclude from this is that a) the NCDS is the odd man out (again); b) these figures are based on tiny numbers of graduates, especially for the 58 cohort; c) the case for arguing that relativities have increased is based essentially on comparing differences in proportions (why should we privilege this as a measure of association over RRs or ORs?); d) if we look at the RRs and ORs the case for a trend rests essentially on a comparison with one time point (NCDS 1958); e) once you concede all of these, M&B’s additional supportive evidence for increasing relativities is being asked to bear a lot more weight that it can reasonably stand, even before we start to poke into the murky depths of all the assumptions, imputations and compromises that have to be made to construct nominally equivalent income distributions for all 3 data sets.
Many thanks to Anna for her clarifications.
My main points on this issue were: 1) that postcode data on working class applications improving post-fees are not reliable, and I think that is the case for this kind of data; and 2) that, based on the THE report on Anna’s paper, since Robbins (not specifically since fees were introduced) the relative chances for working class applicants have got worse, for which she says there is other evidence. I’m more than happy to accept her case that in the post-fees period specifically the socio-economic gap in access has not been made wider by fees (I did not argue it had).
Overall, I think inequalities between applicants in terms of class are still very serious, as they are between universities, managers and staff/students, in terms of power, pay and job security, and much of this is getting worse as the sector becomes more marketised.
And thanks to Colin for picking up on these issues with very fair points.
While I’m sympathetic towards the general thrust of the argument I think we have to be a bit more scrupulous about the way we present the facts. Cherry picking just gifts the other side a first round knockout and perpetuates the idea that sociologists are not good at dealing with data.
Firstly, the best evidence on class differences in HE participation we have (and that is not saying much given its widely acknowledged imperfections) comes from HESA. HESA provides data on class background that does not rely on postcodes, that information, imperfect as it is, comes directly from the applicant. So yes, postcode information can be misleading, but there is no need to rely on it. The HESA data are in the public domain: http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2060&Itemid=141
Secondly, the Vignoles data ultimately comes from a paper by Gorard. Assuming these data are accurate, starting in 1940 and going on to 2000 the deccenial relative risks of HE participation, comparing non-manual/manual class backgrounds are: 4, 6.3, 6.8, 6.4, 4.7, 3.7, 2.6 and the corresponding odds ratios are 4.2, 7.6, 8.9, 8.9, 6.5, 5.3, 4.2. So actually the facts, represented by these data, are quite the opposite of what seems to be said in the Higher’s report on the Vignoles paper. The relativities between the classes actually DECREASED between Robbins and 2000 and the comparison of the absolute difference in percentages between the classes is just silly (because it takes a incredible percentage increase for the most disadvantaged group to raise their very low baseline participation rate).
Now it may be that Vignole’s (and the Higher’s) claim is based on other data, I’ve looked at her slides and can’t find anything in them that would permit a like for like comparison between 1963 and 2000 so that is an open question, just as what happened after 2000 is an open question (on the basis of these data).
Thanks Colin, for mentioning these points on data. I agree it’s important to get this right.
The reason I referred to the postcode evidence is because that is what has been used to me to justify the argument that working class participation has held up since the £9k fees were introduced. So I thought it was important to point out the problems with this data.
Regarding Anna Vignoles’ paper it was profiled in the THE without any comments from readers questioning the data but I will certainly check this.
Please excuse the length of my comment.
The story as reported by the Times Higher covered some but not all of my talk which has led to some confusion. There are two separate issues. One is whether there was a widening of the socio-economic gap in HE participation, and related to this whether there was a reduction in social mobility, during the period 1960s-2000s. This is a contentious topic and there is a big literature on this, but using rich cohort data Blanden and Machin concur that during this earlier period the expansion of HE benefited students from more advantaged family backgrounds to a greater extent.
The second issue which I spoke about during my talk but which was not covered by Times Higher is what happened after the introduction of higher tuition fees. Work by Crawford suggests that following the 2006 fee increase, the socio-economic gap in HE participation did not increase. They say: “Our results show that HE participation has been increasing over time and that it has been rising more rapidly for those from deprived backgrounds, such that the gap in HE participation – and, to a lesser extent, in participation at high-status institutions – between individuals from the most and least deprived quintile groups (fifths of the population) has fallen over time.” So, as I argued in my talk, fees have not worsened the socio-economic gap.
Another point I wanted to make was that in our original work published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, we showed that most (but not all) of the socio-economic gap in the HE participation rate is attributable to differences in pupils’ prior academic achievement. This is important as it suggests that much of the root cause of the SES gap in HE is down to differences in prior achievement rather than financial barriers at the point of entry into HE (though this may change going forward with higher fees). This does not however, imply that the only solutions to widening participation are within the school system: no doubt universities can do much to help. It does however, in my view imply that improving the education achievement of poorer students is a necessary condition for major improvements in widening participation.
Blanden & Machin (2004), Educational inequality and the expansion of UK higher education, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Special Issue on the Economics of Education, Vol. 51, pp. 230-249.
H. Chowdry, C. Crawford, L. Dearden, A. Goodman and A. Vignoles (2012) ‘Widening participation in higher education: analysis using linked administrative data’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-985X.2012.01043.x
Crawford, C. (2013) http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn133.pdf
Why should universities not compete with one another to attract more students, offering degree courses that they actually want to take. Degree’s that mean something to future employers in the real world of employment.
.72% of educators believe new graduates are qualified to land jobs in the real world. Where’s the disconnection here? Educators don’t always know what employers are looking for, yet they think they do, Definitely a real problem, there is a major problem of dysfunctional detachment between the educational systems and the world of employment.
What is the point of people taking educational courses that have no relevance to getting a real job in the real world when they finished their long lengthy course.
Framing and hanging a diploma or degree on your wall is no guarantee of a job? In the UK we have lots of ex graduates working in supermarkets stacking the shelves.
Are for-profit universities to be feared? is their emergence really to be feared?
Establishing what exactly is the public good is very debatable and opaque.
Thanks for this article, could not agree more. I am just changing universities and one of the reasons for change is the constant talk about my income stream and the pressure regards income generation I have faced on an almost daily basis. Rarely has a conversation been about academic endeavour, indeed I have had to engage in this type of activity covertly! The bottom line has been increasingly about what course can I develop to generate more income.
Higher Education is now a commodity and increasingly is not about thinking, learning and challenging the status quo. Worse still it seems as if some research is used just to sell existing courses, rather than as a genuine attempt to discover something new that might contribute to improving practice in my subject area (social work).
Thanks for speaking up.
Thanks Diane, completely sympathise with all you say!