Going to the market?

Malcolm McVicar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, yesterday published an opinion piece on the Guardian website in which he made the following comment on the Browne review (on university funding):

‘As a matter of principle, I do not believe market forces alone should determine the allocation of the country’s higher education resources. The principles on which you operate a multinational oil company are not those on which you should operate a higher education system.’

Dr McVicar doesn’t particularly explain in what way the Browne proposals (whether good or bad) suggest that the ‘market’ should determine higher education resources, or how they are derived from the operation of oil companies; but he does get some backing in comments added to the article by readers. One of these suggests:

‘How many humanities places should be funded? How many for science, or for medicine? What percentage of the population should go to university? Where should our universities be – concentrated in the big cities? Regional? Teaching distributed at local FE colleges? Those are big choices. They can be made in a way that benefits the whole of society, if we accept that Big Government can make these choices in a way better than the Dead Hand of the market. But if we allow the Dead Hand to make these choices for us, then rest assured that not only will education be more expensive and even more difficult for the poor to attain, but that the entire system will be structured for the benefit of the individual, especially individuals in the elite, and not for the good of the country as a whole.’

I am raising this because, over the past week or so, I have regularly encountered critical comments suggesting that the government in England, and perhaps in Ireland, are introducing market mechanisms into higher education, and that this must be bad. I guess this may be based on the idea that tuition fees will reflect student supply and demand, and that less ‘in demand’ universities will attract lower fees and thus face financial risk. But actually, the financial fortunes of universities have long been heavily influenced by student demand, and some newer universities have responded very skillfully to that, and probably will be able to do so again in a fees context. In any case, I am not sure that those who fling around market accusations actually have anything very specific in mind when they do so, beyond wanting a term that shows their disapproval of what is being proposed.

My concern is that the ‘market accusation’ is an intellectually lazy way of arguing, in which it is suggested that markets (as capitalist devices) are being inappropriately harnessed to undermine educational values. I fear that if this particular view takes hold of people’s minds they may start to conclude, as the person who added the comment to Dr McVicar’s piece did, that the answer to this aberration is tighter government regulation (or bureaucracy). Of course governments make policy judgements about the allocation of facilities and resources in the public interest, but it is far from clear that tight government management of university strategies is the answer to the problems faced by higher education.

The key requirement for success is institutional autonomy within a framework of resourcing that allows innovation and intellectual curiosity to flourish and diversity to be maintained. I suspect most people and commentators would subscribe to that. Rather than letting fly with insults, it would be better to explore how this can be realised within current financial constraints and in a way that protects higher education excellence and diversity for future generations.

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28 Comments on “Going to the market?”

  1. Than Says:

    I think a lot of people see the Browne review as a key opening the door in market forces. Probably the issue is that the declining funding in some academic areas (as humanities) together with lower demand from students (if this is the case) will put many departments and universities at risk. On the other hand, as you said Ferdinand some universities were more succesful than other and any vice-chancellor is responding, having in his mind what his university can or cannot do. The October’s debate between VC of Leeds and Kingston further supports that. I assume that Vice-chancellors and governing bodies may have the key in some cases and hard work is needed. Good luck!

  2. anna notaro Says:

    ‘I have regularly encountered critical comments suggesting that the government in England, and perhaps in Ireland, are introducing market mechanisms into higher education, and that this must be bad’. It might be worth adding some historical perspective here, the ‘introduction’ of market mechanisms into UK education is not a recent phenomenon but dates back to the Thatcher era. What most critics argue against (and at least this is my position) is not the market per se, (fair competition and meritocracy are values worth upholding)rather the way in which market ideology has become, especially over the past 10 years, the ‘predominant narrative’ within academia (and society at large, one only needs to consider the success of TV programmes like You have been Fired). Obviously being critical of radical (and acritical)applications of market logic to academia does not mean to advocate the ‘aberration of tighter government regulations’as you put it. It would be more productive to move beyond such radicalisms and maybe remember, to paraphrase the title of the American philospher Martha Nussbaum’s recent book that Not all human pursuits are For Profit:
    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9112.html
    only wish that Mr Brown (former head of BP) had read it…


    • Anna, you refer to ‘the way in which market ideology has become, especially over the past 10 years, the ‘predominant narrative’ within academia’. I would love to see you elaborate on that. What examples of this ‘predominant’ market narrative would you provide?

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        well, you might admit Ferdinand that your comment on ‘intellectual lazyness’ entailed some ambiguity, judging also from other readers’ reactions including Copernicus’ thoughtful advice on your future career plans better placed in England, rather than Scotland🙂
        As examples of what I define as ‘predominant narrative’, this could be a long (and somewhat pointless) list, my choice of the term ‘narrative’ is meant to hint particularly at the language (always indicative of major conceptual shifts)that now pervades academic life, (merges, outsourcing, waistage and last but not least IMPACT). I’ll take impact as the primary example of the above narrative and refer to Prof. Collini’s discussion at http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article6915986.ece


        • Anna, I think you’ve hit on my point precisely. Like you (and Stefan Collini), I think that the requirement of an external impact of research as part of the recognition of its ‘excellence’ is totally daft, and I wouldn’t defend it for a second. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with any ‘market narrative’. My gripe is that people use the term ‘market’ as some sort of bogeyman, but in contexts where market talk really isn’t relevant. Academics should not use concepts sloppily, and that was my point.

          In what way, therefore, do you think that the REF’s impact requirement is part of a ‘market’ narrative? What ‘market’?

  3. iainmacl Says:

    so if you criticise ‘the market’ then you are ‘intellectually lazy’…yes, just wish Karl Marx had got off his backside and actually did some serious writing…😉

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      indeed, being deemed of ‘intellectual lazyness’ for criticizing the market is kind of ironic and rather sad:(


      • Anna, as I said in reply to Iain, absolutely nowhere have I suggested that criticisng the market is intellectually lazy – just doing it without proper analysis or explanation or in an irrelevant context. From your initial comments above, I am actually probably more critical of market approaches than you are!

        • Anna Notaro Says:

          @’In what way, therefore, do you think that the REF’s impact requirement is part of a ‘market’ narrative? What ‘market’?’ Well in the reply above you seem to get exactly what I mean by ‘market’. As much as I abhor sloppily defined concepts, ‘market’ is one of these umbrella terms which have a significant ideological baggage which often obfuscates its ermeneutics, hence its definition can only be approximately defined by the context in which it is used…


    • Iain, I’m afraid (if you don’t mind the comment) that actually your response is ‘intellectually lazy’…🙂. Absolutely nowhere did I say that criticising the market is intellectually lazy. My complaint is that ‘markets’ are injected into the debate without any proper analysis of how that is relevant to what is being criticised.

      I am by no means supportive of all that Browne suggests, and I agree with others that the approach to the humanities is silly. But that has nothing to do with markets. In fact, if you applied market logic then almost all students would be studying (and would be encouraged to study) humanities and social sciences.

      As for Karl Marx, do I take it you think he got his market analysis right? Have you read all of Das Kapital (in German of course)? I can absolutely recommend it – indeed I may blog on it shortly.

      • iainmacl Says:

        admittedly not in German only in English and some portions in Scots Gaelic. See, I didnt say I wasnt intellectually lazy, just that he wasn’t, whether or not he was ‘correct’. I defer to Ana for further discussion since I’m off for a coffee and a cake.

  4. copernicus Says:

    I have no problems with Browne report at all. I am surprised it has taken so long to get such a report out, after Blair government supported by Brown as the Chancellor of Exche introduced tuition fee in England. I can see why VCs of Central Lancashire and Bedfordhire are hyperventilating. Similar observation was made by the Ulster VC. They fear that their universities which have expanded fast, willy nilly, are going to shrink when the market forces are put into operation. For too long we in England (and Britan) have put up with the mindless expansion of universities like Central Lancashire as Blair and Brown’s dictum of attracting 50% secondary school leavers and others was judiciously followed. I agree with you in your observation: “My concern is that the ‘market accusation’ is an intellectually lazy way of arguing, in which it is suggested that markets (as capitalist devices) are being inappropriately harnessed to undermine educational values…”, but then if you express the above view as RGU VC, you will have support from other VCs in Scotland, particularly from Aberdeen and Edinburgh, but then you will have hard-time dodging the missiles thrown at you by rest of the Scottish population. Ferdinand, you will have a strong following in England, and if your are in difficulty in Scotland, please come to England. You have much in common with Professor Malcolm Grant of UCL,Sir Robert Keith O’Nions of Imperial and Sir Howard Newby of Liverpool. I have had discussion with them as a parent,an academic and as a friend of these 3 universities.

  5. Kelly Says:

    Thanks for this rather timely post, Ferdinand. I was just putting together a few thoughts for a short talk I am giving in London on Monday. The event has been organised by the Society for Research in Higher Education (www.srhe.ac.uk) to launch Roger Brown’s book ‘Higher Education and the Market’. I now have my opening comments for the talk, but rest assured I will attribute the ‘intellectually lazy’ comment properly!😉

    Aside from that, I am finding it difficult to understand how the shifting of the burden of the cost of HE from the public purse to the individual student is not an introduction of (further) market mechanisms into HE. Browne’s proposal is that student choice should be the main determinant of the shape of the curriculum, but even he realizes that there might be dangers with this approach when he suggests that some courses need protection from the vagaries of the market. Do we trust students to make the ‘best’ choices for the shape of the HE system?

    • copernicus Says:

      I know that students like my son and daughter know what they are looking for in terms of their HE, the appropriate university etc.. and it is right that they are in the driving seat. As for Browne’s STEM support, which is what you refer to I guess, it is more to do with what the needs of the country, given the high numbers of work permits issued to get the people specialised in these areas. What Willets announced yesterday will stay.


    • Kelly, let me get this right: you are saying that allowing student choice is employing market mechanisms and is bad? Are you saying that students should have their programmes of study chosen for them? By the government?

      • copernicus Says:

        Ferdinand
        My son and daughter will be horrified if they are not in control of their programme of studies as adults.
        Kelly’s remark: “Do we trust students to make the ‘best’ choices for the shape of the HE system? “,indicates that acaddemics should choose for them as they are scared of what the students might do in case it affects their existence?


    • Happy to help Kelly – as long as you don’t suggest (as Iain did) that I said that ‘criticising the market’ is intellectually lazy. Indeed it may be worth saying that I am personally seriously critical of approaches that apply market mechanisms in contexts where these don’t belong. As it happens, I am writing a book on that very topic, which is why these particular comments caught my eye.

      • Kelly Says:

        Well my point is just that if the predominant factor in deciding the shape of the HE curriculum is student choice, we might find that students opt out of certain subjects which they might perceive to be uninteresting or difficult, but which from a disciplinary specialization point-of-view are essential. I don’t think the HE curriculum should be decided on a popularity contest of subjects.

        I found Stefan Collini’s points persuasive in this regard in his review of the Browne report in the LRB.
        http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n21/stefan-collini/brownes-gamble

        I had lots of choice and flexibility in my undergrad degree in the US but it was a liberal arts degree. I’m afraid that in the English system academics DO decide what is ‘best’ for the students if those students want to be a historian or philosopher (rather than just some woolly liberal arts person like myself). So it comes down to how you define ‘choice’ within the system, which is unclear to me under Browne’s proposals – apart from that he thinks if students have more choice they will be more satisfied and the quality of HE will be raised. So he is applying market principles to HE, don’t you think?

        It’s interesting that Roger Brown’s edited collection on my desk here has about a dozen contributors to it from all over the world who believe it is appropriate to think about market mechanisms in the context of HE. But I can tell them on Monday that they were just being lazy. (Not really).


        • Kelly, you said: ‘I don’t think the HE curriculum should be decided on a popularity contest of subjects.’

          But isn’t that exactly what happens in Ireland now? Isn’t that what the CAO points are all about?

          I’m still not clear what you are suggesting. Are you saying that if I want to study history, but you (as Lecturer) think I should be studying philosophy, your decision trumps mine? How could that be good? Indeed how could it even work?

          Finally, of course you can talk about markets in relation to HE, provided you can make it relevant. What I consider to be lazy is when someone says the word ‘market’ as if it were some sort of voodoo curse, but without bothering to connect the term in any way with the subject. In such cases the speaker/writer is hoping that the audience will react by screaming, ‘Oooh, he’s said “market”, something awful must be happening, let’s run away!’

          There are plenty of good ways of engaging in market analysis, but it needs to be done in an intellectually coherent way. That’s all I was saying. And IMO, Malcolm McVicar was taking an intellectual shortcut and was using the term in the voodoo sense.

        • Kelly Says:

          No I’m finding it difficult to express what I mean about student choice in the curriculum. It’s a very important point that deserves an intellectually coherent debate.

          But to try to address one issue: I don’t want as a lecturer to tell a history student that they should be doing philosophy instead. That’s not what I meant at all.

          What I meant to suggest is: at what point does student choice become a viable mechanism for deciding the offering of degree programmes? If universities in England are only able to offer degrees if they are financially viable (in the Arts, Hums and Social Sciences), they have to get bums on seats as the first priority. So to offer a degree in history, for example, they first have to make it seem like a great choice for students – because it is only the student fees that will make it possible for the university to offer it. That means they have to market that course as a fantastically great history programme worthy of the fees. If prospective students look at the expected range of courses on that programme and aren’t immediately attracted to them they may very well decide not to do the degree, and the whole degree becomes non-viable.

          So student choice then becomes a matter of a popularity contest, for that subject area. Universities will either have to say that they offer a really difficult and challenging history degree programme and try to appeal to the students’ better nature to come pay for it (risky); or they will have to try to win a popularity contest by re-jigging the history curriculum so that it is more appealing, and in the process probably lose out on some of the aspects of the history curriculum that give it the weight of disciplinary specialisation that can be so important in helping students develop critical thinking skills.

          I’m grossly over-simplifying things here. I’m just well aware that when I did my liberal arts degree I had 4 lovely years of picking and choosing amongst different subjects, and I stumbled across an amazing range of different perspectives and types of scholarship, some of which I followed up subsequently to a level of specialisation in that subject. What Browne seems to be suggesting is that degrees need to be ‘fit for purpose’ immediately – that students should make the decision about what they need and everyone should just get on with it. That scares me. And it’s obviously impossible to adopt the 4 year liberal arts model in England right now, even if it is seen as a good way to educate the nation – but I don’t think for a minute that Browne believes it is.


        • I’m still trying to get my head around what you are saying, Kelly. Do you think courses should be ratiioned, so that students are forced to do something they don’t want because they cannot get into what they do want?

          Of course, to an extent that is what we do and will always do, because we could not possibly resource our programmes just on the back of this year’s popularity charts, which may be quite different next year. Otherwise we’d all have focused solely on civil engineering and architecture 4 years ago and would have dozens of lecturers twiddling thumbs now. But nevertheless, what we have available now is based on student choice moderated over a period of maybe five years or so.

          But are you suggesting something more than that? Are you saying that we should set up degree programmes in Mongolian Studies and force at least 40 students to take that every year? Or more realistically, Classics?

          I would love to see Classics make a big comeback. But the truth is that it won’t unless universities can make it compelling and attractive to students. We cannot tell students that they should have no choice because we know better.

        • Kelly Says:

          I think you just made my point for me there in your last paragraph. What will happen to Mongolian Studies if the only way for universities to offer it is through getting students to pay fees for it? Because it looks as though through Browne’s proposals there will be no other way of funding Mongolian Studies. Will there be enough students willing to pay £6000 per year to make it a viable offering as a degree programme in any university?

          So my point is that I think it’s a terrible idea to remove core funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences and run degree programmes on the basis of student fees instead within the English system because the curriculum is structured through disciplinary specialisation. There are lots of ‘Mongolian Studies’ type examples that may well disappear because they are not safely embedded within a wider liberal arts degree programme.

          For example, women’s studies disappeared in the UK but it didn’t disappear in the US where it was protected within a broader liberal arts curriculum. There are issues here to do with types of institutions as obviously some institutions will be better protected from the vagaries of the market and will be able to subsidize small, specialist areas.

          But I think all of this is sad as once universities take the decision to axe non-viable subjects they are extremely unlikely to ever get them back.

  6. dkernohan Says:

    We could test this if we weren’t using a raised fee cap as a way of replacing core teaching funding. We could do some actual empirical observations and see what actually happened. We could use fucking science.

    When variable fees came in in 2004, we saw everyone end up charging the maximum fee. Would this happen every time the cap was raised? Dunno.

    Unfortunately the new government model seems to be set up to ensure that this would happen. So we get all of the uncertainty and short-term-ism of a market system, but without any of the postulated advantages that allowing universities to decide their own optimum fee and investment levels to maximise profit.

  7. dkernohan Says:

    “Of course governments make policy judgements about the allocation of facilities and resources in the public interest, but it is far from clear that tight government management of university strategies is the answer to the problems faced by higher education.”

    Seems to be working pretty well at the moment – record numbers of students, record numbers of applicants, world class research rankings (punching way above our weight in terms of population size) and the sector as a whole turning an annual profit according to HESA.

    Is the current system perfect? No. Is it “in crisis”? No.


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