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.