October 29, 2013
In Sold Out in the London Review of Books Stefan Collini evaluates the recent changes to higher education in the UK ( in the autumn of 2010) to largely to replace public funding of teaching with student fees. The root of these changes are the financial problems faced by UK higher education which date back to the underfunding of university expansion in the 1980s and early 1990s.
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 justification from the conservative Cameron government is that the most powerful driver of reform is to let new providers into the system. Collini adds:
Note that word ‘reform’: 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 assumption behind the 2010 Browne Report and all subsequent government rhetoric is that giving financial clout to consumer demand through the fee system will force universities to change....the rhetorical pressure has been uniformly directed at insinuating that universities obstruct student wishes, obstruct the legitimate demands of employers, obstruct efficient management of the sector and generally just, well, obstruct. But being forced to swallow a good dose of private equity, it is claimed, will soon unblock the system. The metaphor all too accurately indicates what will thereby be produced.
The replacement of public funding by fees is the vehicle for remaking universities in the image of consumer-oriented retailers, so it is also the Trojan horse which allows private capital to make a profit out of higher education. The value of a university education is the income it enables the economic agent to earn minus the cost of acquiring that education.