How do we “end” the marketisation of education?

As party manifestos have been released, we’ve seen a variety of pledges on education with greater or lesser levels of detail – from abolishing tuition fees, to promising to “consider carefully” the Augar review, to a staggered system of lifelong learning funding.

However, as Wonkhe’s Jim Dickinson pointed out recently – those who are pledging to end marketisation have been very quiet on what they mean by that.

In the spirit of students and their unions being approximately five years ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking about education policy (see also: trans students’ rights, organising to stop climate change, highlighting the Black Attainment Gap as a real problem, stamping out sexual harassment on campus and a list that goes on over the last few years), it seemed to us at NUS that we should incubate the conversation around what an end to marketisation might actually mean.

Clever clogs

First, we should take care to come to a shared definition. Marketisation often joins the list of terms such as “neoliberalism” that is thrown about in our sector to appear clever – without much thought of explaining the concepts underneath it. If we are now to talk seriously about ending it, however, the first step is to spread a common understanding.

Others have written about its historical roots of marketisation, but in the here and now, the lifting of the student number cap – coupled with a forced scarcity of governmental funding, has turned higher education providers, at least in England – into organisations which prioritise competing for tuition fee income from students. This incentivises “shallow investment” in things which they believe will appeal to students and game league table metrics – or buoy their income if they don’t.

From wrapping campuses in gold ribbon on TEF results day, to investing in conferencing facilities over counselling – and outsourcing their own graduate teaching contracts to Unitemps to ensure that they don’t have to invest more than the bare minimum in staffing – we’ve seen the full range of institutional priorities utterly skewed by chasing income and shrinking margins.

This is compounded by regulation which aims to create a survival of the fittest “boom or bust” education economy. When the Office for Students was established explicitly as a market regulator, this was entrenched. By making ratings based on false conceptions of excellent teaching a cornerstone of the regulatory framework, placing the success measures of graduate salary and economic output on a pedestal, and seeing “market exit” as a sign of a healthy system, our current regulator continues to hasten the development of a market at the expense of deeper-rooted changes which could develop high quality education.

The focus on graduate outcomes through narrow economic measures in particular has distorted the education market, renewing a focus on courses which are cheap to deliver with high return. This moves providers away from high cost technical and creative subjects which do not guarantee a high salary return: Even those who advocate the market for approach on the grounds of bringing students choice would not have asked for this.

Deep dive

For students, marketisation goes deeper than the price sticker on education.

Working with students’ unions, we see providers keen to treat their unions as extensions of student experience departments which are good for the corporate brand – rather than encouraging challenging representative organisations to hold the institution to account. We hear stories of universities keen only to accede to their unions’ suggestions when it can improve NSS scores.

Of course, this can be a weapon in the arsenal of any students’ union – but I can’t help wondering if, in a different climate, those at the top of institutions would be improving students’ lives as part of their core mission, with survey scores as secondary.

A lot of the writing on combatting marketisation comes from people who advocate going back to a golden age of higher education, where academics had free rein and fewer people went to university – but our challenge now is to come up with something better.

Equally unappealing is the idea that those opposing marketisation want to bring about a new system which lacks choice or diversity in our institutions. It’s false to equate an end to marketisation with this: we advocate collaboration and democracy in education in the knowledge that an appreciation of our diverse strengths makes our whole sector stronger, just as this way of working does in our students’ unions.

To tackle the causes of marketisation, we need a two-fold approach to both funding and regulation, with a clear focus on higher education’s governance. And let’s be clear: as a point of absolute principle, this should not include a return to limiting opportunities to students through capping numbers.

Education is a right

The abolition of tuition fees from two major parties will go a huge way to lessen the sharp edge of marketisation. A switch to central government funding, which should include a reasonable course subsidy for those courses which cost more to teach or are under threat, is something that NUS and students’ unions have campaigned for tirelessly. Removing fees, and of course accompanying that with the now-widespread policy to restore non-repayable grant funding and improve maintenance support is both a sensible first step and the just alternative to an education which leaves those poorest students who dare to learn in the greatest amount of debt.

By removing the need to compete for students’ fee income directly through recruitment, and therefore by changing the direct student – provider fee relationship, the government would dis-incentivise such stark competition between providers. This means that focus can be switched from advertising and shallow investment, particularly if funding were to come with a focus on reorientation of mission towards research, teaching and meaningful widening participation and a sense of civic mission.

However, if we continue to regulate based on competition, then we will only be able to blunt the sharpest edges of the damage marketisation does. Any political party hoping to end marketisation should re-assess the regulation of higher education – but be bold in the face of those who want to turn back the clock, being clear that regulation is most certainly needed.

There should be a move to a regulatory system based on enhancement and internal quality, still audited nationally, but delivered in such a way that a holistic assessment of a providers’ impact on students and wider society can be made. And this will all mean nothing without a concerted push for more democratic governance of universities.

Two to tango

NUS’s Manifesto for Partnership was radical in its thinking that partnership “is about investing students with the power to co-create not just knowledge or learning, but the higher education institution itself.” Bubbles of this practice exist in learning spaces across the UK, but this cannot be enough anymore.

Democratisation means a redistribution of power around and outside our campuses, where student power comes not from their role as consumers who need to be appeased but from their role as parts of a community with a collective concern and responsibility – shared with staff and the local community – for the running of an institution and the spreading of education.

This includes a re-evaluation of each institutions’ place within its community. Creating a democratic university which keeps its doors shut to those who live nearby and doesn’t think about developing skills for the local economy does not meaningfully redistribute power at all.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the education sector talking about the damage marketisation has done to us. Now we have the opportunity to have a nuanced debate on what the ending it could actually look like, let’s not waste it.

3 responses to “How do we “end” the marketisation of education?

  1. WonkHE would be so much better if the editorial line was based around this excellent article. Any serious person involved in HE policy should be making these ideas central to their work, but sadly it’s still largely a world of centrist technocrats.

  2. We don’t have *much* of a line Andy, and both within the team and across contributors encourage as diverse a set of views as possible…

  3. I remain unconvinced of the need to “end marketisation” in higher education. Competition between institutions is healthy for prospective students who, like it or not (and clearly you do not) represent consumers on at least some level within the sector. I agree with the need to meet students’ needs more proactively, but there’s no reason why this ambition should be hindered by healthy competition between providers in a dynamic marketplace, featuring many different types of institution with a variety of specialisms.

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