The Commodification of Higher Education is Corroding Criticality

September 9, 2012

Commod Ed

In 2010, the Higher Education sector, like so many other social provisions coveted by the coalition, was caught in the pincers of neoliberal reform. Like New Labour before, coalition ideologues have reasserted the belief that Higher Education will only be ‘sustainable’ when the ‘dead hand’ of the state is removed and students are left to fend for themselves in the free market. In an attempt to untangle the corrosive implications of these policies, it is important to track how UK universities, especially those in the middle of the pack, are now reacting to these changes, and the effect this is having on learning and teaching.

When universities were asked to set their own price, the government was appalled to find that nearly all decided to charge £9000 per academic year. Predictably, those universities lacking the prestige of their Oxbridge counterparts would rather be an empty product on the top shelf rather than a tin of spam in the discount bin. Angered by this flippant disregard for the free market, the government intervened, punishing universities for not being competitive and cutting the number of low achieving students that they could enroll. This measure has primarily affected the institutions in the middle of the pack, ‘wider access’ universities as they’re called, which have traditionally supported students from working class backgrounds. At this time, institutions of the middle had two choices: either drastically cut resources, drop the fees and gain access to a larger pool of students; or keep the top tariff, cut resources less drastically, and convince a dwindling pool of students that they will at least be employable when they finish.

The universities that maintained the top tariff attempted to compensate for the 405 cut in the Higher Education Funding Council’s (HEFCE) financing, and the limited pool of domestic students, by embarking on a renewed recruitment drive for international students. This is a strategy that has financed a Higher Education sector bereft of state funding. In the OECD study, Education at a Glance (2008), the UK invested only 1.2% of GDP into Higher Education, just below Portugal (1.3), Estonia (1.3), and Ireland (1.4). With the recent cut in funding, this is set to drop further still. International students are now worth an estimated £8bn to the Higher Education sector, so in the face of savage cuts to funding, universities reasserted their energies in the global market.

If doubling fees damaged domestic demand for Higher Education and alienated working class students, Theresa May made short shrift of the international market by tightening restrictions on student visas the following year. Universities offsetting losses by recruiting more international students were suddenly cut adrift, prompting 68 vice chancellors to sign a letter to David Cameron urging the government to take foreign students out of net immigration counts.

What now for the undergraduates paying double fees? This bungled marketisation has prompted universities with less prestige to cut resources and throw more money at PR companies, in a desperate attempt to out-hype their competitors. Marketing strategists are getting rich pitting one struggling university against another, whilst staff get restructured and students get less, for more.

With many universities expecting recruitment to fall by up to 12-13%, and international revenues at risk, those students paying double will almost certainly have access to fewer resources than their peers in previous years. This includes smaller libraries, fewer support staff, and a ‘flexible’ resourcing of space, which is now at a premium. Courses that rely heavily on studio space or are not considered ‘vocational’, such as Fine Art and Philosophy, are at particular risk. As a consequence, tutors now operate in a weirdly temporal existence, anxious that studios and seminar rooms will be reallocated to courses that can get more ‘bums on seats’ for less capital investment.

Adjunct to diminishing teaching and practical resources, commodification of Higher Education is having a detrimental effect on learning and teaching. The theory of experiential learning, as described by David Kolb, is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”. The educational concept of active participation for learning is slowly being eroded as universities present themselves as ‘trainers’ and ‘skill givers’, luring students with the promise of a ‘step up’ into employment. This language of ‘employability’ omits the responsibility of the learner to be active, by promising something in return for payment. Students cannot develop criticality if they are encouraged to believe knowledge is a commodity that can simply be purchased.

There is now a growing dichotomy between the attainment of technical skills and competencies, as advocated by industry, and the cultivation of autonomous and critical learners, who are empowered to venture beyond the short-term compulsions of the free market. Moreover, the government continues to preach about jobs where there are none. In fact, David Cameron himself “cannot see a day when the economy is not under pressure”. If youth unemployment is close to a record million people, and a third of graduates are in unskilled work, how could indebting students to the sum of £27,000 (plus living costs) on the promise of employment ever be deemed sustainable? This is further evidence of a coalition government tying itself in knots with the economic irrationalities of neoliberal governance: evangelising small government at one juncture and making shambolic market interventions at the next.

In Quebec and Toronto, students are fighting for the abolishment of tuition fees and reclaiming the dignity of their institutions. On November 21, at the NUS protest, students and university workers across the UK will join that fight. Students are entitled to a debt-free education and the opportunity to participate in a community of practice, unhindered by the crude assumptions of the knowledge economy. Only in this context will the new ‘lost generation’ acquire the critical distance to question capital, and develop new frameworks for production.


By Alex Charnley who tweets from @alex_charnley