Higher education in a market?

Yesterday I wrote about blogging university heads, so let me just take as my theme for this post a comment made by one of them, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford, Professor Martin Hall. In his latest post, Professor Hall takes a closer look at how a university education is now being treated and how, if at all, this relates to what we might call a market transaction. As the price students have to pay for their education is described, at least in popular parlance, as a ‘fee’, he thinks it would be reasonable to expect this to be a payment for a service on a par with fees we pay to banks, lawyers or certain pay-as-you-go public services like refuse collection. So, he asks, is all this a market?

His answer is complex, but interesting. It cannot be a market, he suggests, because in England the payment methods (after graduation, subject to income) are too irregular, and the price is controlled by government and has little enough to do with supply and demand. As too many universities will opt for the £9,000 fee option, it is likely that there will be further regulatory controls on its availability and on the conditions that universities charging it will need to fulfil.

As critics of government policy (in various countries) have sometimes claimed that higher education was being commodified and marketised, it is worth saying that there is no evidence of this at all. In fact, there is an argument for saying that we might be much better off if it really were the case. Rather, we are witnessing a curious kind of bureaucratisation, in which governments are replacing money with new controls and constraints: the view that the state cannot afford to pay the cost of higher education, but should dictate to a much greater extent than before exactly how it is offered, monitored and evaluated. There is probably an understandable instinct in all of this, a kind of apologetic statement by the government to the citizen: ‘Sorry, we cannot fund higher education, but we’ll try to compensate for the effect of our financial withdrawal by  closely controlling everything that gets done at college.’

In the new world of higher education, nobody is actually ‘buying’ a commodity, or even a service. Rather, we are moving towards what you might call ‘targeted taxation’, under which the cost of education is being funded much more directly by those benefiting from it, with some level of subsidy coming from the wider society. It isn’t really a fee, but rather a kind of educational equivalent of a capital gains tax, if you like an ‘intellectual gains tax’. There is nothing really wrong with that in principle, but it needs to be set into a much more coherent policy framework that explains what is actually happening. What is missing also is a more coherent perspective on what we still expect the state to do in subsidising higher education – a point on which Britain’s recent strategic review (the Browne report) is, in my view, really rather weak.

I think we need to accept that the old taxpayer-pays-all system of higher education is now unmanageable and unaffordable. But we need to have a framework that replaces it that shows some understanding of what higher education is actually for, and that can explain to a tetchy population why the old model could neither fund higher education satisfactorily nor make it equitable. If we can get a better policy framework for this, it may become easier for countries uneasy about these changes to make their own necessary reforms.

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27 Comments on “Higher education in a market?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    At the moment the Universities are like some thick boyfriend who’s girlfriend is to polite to give the push. Instead hopes by her actions becomes progressively more aggressive and insulting that he will get the message. This is like some weird twisted Stockholm syndrome.
    If I were giving a tip to a fellow in the Universities condition it would be to ‘Man up, grow a pair and take control over your own life’. And to the girl it would be ‘just dump him’.

  2. copernicus Says:

    Let me first say a few words about Salford. Salford is really struggling to recruit students, and my friend a professor there thinks that their location does not help them either. They are squeezed by the excellence of U of Manchester and by the buzzling student population of MMU. I would hence look at whatever Martin Hall says with the above in the background. If Salford opts for £9000, it does not stand a chance.

    About your observation: “What is missing also is a more coherent perspective on what we still expect the state to do in subsidising higher education – a point on which Britain’s recent strategic review (the Browne report) is, in my view, really rather weak” I strongly disagree as students take charge of their destiny, pick and choose courses they want and go to institutions they like. In terms of subsidy, they have said they will subsidise STEM courses. In these days of nearly 50% aspiring to go to universities, and funding black hole to fill in, your observation makes no sense at all. In your own words, Lord Browne report, and flagging it at every opportunity has become a hobby horse for you. You could do better, but I am afraid, you won’t.

    Why you are shying away from commenting what is happening in Scotland, see:
    http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/news/Fees-order-threat-to-Scots.6658451.jp which Fred drew attention to yesterday. Is it politically easy for you to comment on what the England does by way of its tuition fee hike, sniping at Lord Browne report rather than critically look at where the money is going to come from to fund Scottish universities like RGU?

    • copernicus Says:

      I should have said “buzzing” when I referred to MMU.
      My information from Edinburgh (the RG member) and St Andrews is that they too want the tuition fee at the hiked level as they rightly fear that they will suffer at the end as the Westminster pot of dosh given to them will not be suffice and they have to cut their student places or trawl for “fee paying” students. Despite Ming Campbell the Chancellor of St Andrews voting against (he is a comfortable living Scot achieved zilch in his party, and hence was shoved out) St Andrews with its sizeable English student population would like the fee. Both cannot charge £9000 to English students (But the difference is the hiked fee has to be paid upfront rather than carried as loans) and get them to the snowy patches, and are shackled by Scots psyche of getting HE free as long as some one pays for it. Scots have very serious thinking to do.and yet this post ny Ferdinand is about English HE!!

  3. anna notaro Says:

    @ Ferdinand: It is baffling to read in the same post that: ‘As critics of government policy… have sometimes claimed that higher education was being commodified and marketised, it is worth saying that there is no evidence of this at all’ and then a few lines below that ‘It isn’t really a fee, but rather a kind of educational equivalent of a capital gains tax, if you like an ‘intellectual gains tax’, as if the latter was not the back side of the same (ideological)medal. Already in 1995 Willmott argued that ‘students have been explicitly constituted as “customers”, a development that further reinforces the idea that a degree is a commodity that (hopefully) can be exchanged for a job rather than as a liberal education that prepares students for life’, see S. Ball’s (K.Mannheim Prof of Sociology of Education, London) lecture ‘Education for Sale!http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/CERU-0410-253-OWI.pdf
    Your distinction between marketization and burocratization reminds one of Weber’s analysis of rationalization; still neo Weberian perspectives emphasize an ever more instrumentally rationalized labour process mirrored in an equally instrumentalized sphere of consumer ‘choices’ essentially already made, so that standardization and ‘efficiency’ become the unifying functional paradigm for society as a whole. This is G. Ritzer’s thesis of ‘The Mcdonaldization of Society’ (1993)which in turn can be critically employed to understand the processes at work in UK higher education, and society as a whole. (see C. Garland, The McDonaldization of Higher Education?: Notes on the UK Experience
    http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/4_1/garland.html
    The ‘evidence’ is everywhere to be seen….


    • Anna, the capital gains tax is not a market device. In fact, it taxes (and so counter-acts) the market. So there is no contradiction.

      I would also draw a clear distinction between ‘customers’ (actors in a market) and ‘consumers’ (beneficiaries of a product, service or benefit). This is an important distinction, particularly in the context of modern social policy – which has shifted over time between rewarding producers and protecting consumers.

  4. copernicus Says:

    The lefties in humanities in USA prattling about UK HE, this time from University of Texas cluster, that patch known for marketisation in everything ..Oh, dear! This will surely add to this academic’s publication as they count this prattle as a serious work when the next pay rise comes around.

    • copernicus Says:

      I am not surprised that Lord Browe report rejects any support for humanities, and this gets into the noses of humanities academics as summer flies in Australia do.

    • anna notaro Says:

      feeling rather sad for you Copernicus, your old fashion cold war mentality sees clusters of lefties everywhere…easier to ‘label’ than to engage with arguments when people do not agree with your views…great example of dialectic😦

      • copernicus Says:

        Notaro, notorious for senseless platitudes. May work in your patch. I can see the flies getting into your nose. I suggest learn some science and get rounded and come back to debate. You dodged my question about your science background in the other thread.

  5. copernicus Says:

    Free prescription in Scotland has produced this, as Scotsman reports: “Scottish lung cancer patients to be denied drug prescribed in England” in http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/scotland/Scottish-lung-cancer-patients-to.6659698.jp.

    We can foresee what will be the news items if cuts hit Scottish universities and they keep on deluding themselves about free HE.

  6. copernicus Says:

    Ferdinand

    You let go Anna Notario comments said about me -it was personal directed at me to which I responded in kind, when my general comment of American leftists academics commenting on UK HE incesed her.

    If you really want to be fair, you should also pull her up, and if do not I can see where you are coming from.


    • Copernicus, there is a difference between robust debate and personal insults. I am cool with the former, but not the latter. Your addressing her in the way you did was not acceptable. My objection was to the first five words of your comment, not what then followed.

      • copernicus Says:

        You can pick and choose what you like, but I do not like partisan way you dealt with these comments. But if you read all my comments until then, it was not focused on any person until she made it personal to me. Also, if you see I did not reply to her until she replied to me, and all my comments were posted as independent posts. Hence I do feel what I said was wrong.

        If you want to allow her comment personalised at the first time, then there is something wrong in your fairness. I can see you stung by my first post,and this has clouded your judgement.

    • Al Says:

      Twould be a better use of everyone’s time to focus on the issue that created the blog?

      One thing that I have been pondering lately is the question to a student if 50 years time passed and
      they graduated and went into the world.

      What would be their views on their education?
      Would they advocate fees if it improved quality?
      Would they identify and challenge bureaucracies?
      Would there be a reappraisal of the value of each faculty?

      • copernicus Says:

        @ Al. First, about this blog, and Ferdinand’s increased shall I say obsession with Lord Browne report. He is not deabting Irish HE enough in the aftermath of recent cuts in Ireland, nor he is concentrating on Scottish HE, where they have real problems responding to the Westminster cuts for university funding, and Westminster passing a proportional cuts to Scottish university funding. As for Browne report the House of Lords is debating it today and there are commitee stages to come where it can be diluted. Ferdinand is jumping up and flashing his sword right and left. If he says he is debating, there is enough debate going on in the THE ( Times Higher) blog lead by many distinguished English academics. He is not going to add to them. As far as I know no one here in England that I know recognise Ferdinand’s blog. He attaches too much importance to it.

        We lived and worked in Scotalnd for a decade, and my children were born thee. My 2 academic friends there in two universities advise SNP, and I know how their minds are working. I can understand Ferdinand’s hesitation to debate about the current funding predicament in Scotland, but if he has any input based on tuition fees, they will be strongly spurned by SNP. Hence I believe he is riding his Lord Browne hobby horses.

        Now, we can debate your good questions.

        • copernicus Says:

          @Al
          50 years is too long. Could we have say 10 years and discuss these questions?

        • Al Says:

          Agreed, 50 years is too long…

          I am of the opinion at the moment, that someone at the age of 40 ish, having attended university would look back at the experience and be of the opinion that the long term question facing them from their education would be that of the quality of the education!!!

          Fees etc would be looked as almost irrelevant in the long term???

          Further, look at some of the automobiles that some students, obviously not all, are parking on campus, worth how much.

          Higher education is in a market, but the competition is in terms of time, cost and quality.
          We seem to be ignoring the quality???

  7. copernicus Says:

    @Al
    “I am of the opinion at the moment, that someone at the age of 40 ish, having attended university would look back at the experience and be of the opinion that the long term question facing them from their education would be that of the quality of the education!!!”

    Agree 100%. My son who is going to do PhD next year in UCL thinks quality of UG education is critical, and not the numbers as he sees so many in and so many out of a blackbox called university. The question is how to ensure the quality. My opinion is not admitting so many to first degrees but by ensuring that those admitted have enough academic ability. This I am afraid means the less able need longer courses in terms of years. Also, removing bad lecturers. The last is very very important.

    Yes, tuition fee level matters, I am fairly confident that when the current economic climate improves, the level will slide. I talked to students, those peaceful ones when they were protesting in London, and their grief is that despite the fee hike, the quality of material delivered to them in the classroom will not improve and that sticks to their gullets. So, if you analyse their anger, after all these students are paying a tuition fee of about £3300, and they say the lectures their receive are not worth this money. I agree with them.

    • copernicus Says:

      Further to the above, most of ” no fee” opposition from the academics end is coming from those whose quality of teaching/research is found to be wanting and they think by making the HE free the student will accept the low quality of lectures delivered to them. Much like me for example, accepting my hopeless NHS GP if he/she makes a wrong diagnosis as NHS is free at the point of delivery, but not accepting a fee paid Harley Street specialist getting it wrong. Also, the howl is heard from those universities which are finding it difficult to attract academically able students.

      The reason where even my new universities ( post-92) colleagues are recognising this (may not be rational recognition) is found in sending their children to RG. They say that even if the lectures delivered can be of lower quality, the brand say Imperial stamped on their transcripts is worth it. I cannot argue against them.

    • Al Says:

      I had a friend a few years ago having to correspond with the legal representative of a students whose thesis grade didnt give them the step they needed to their next port of call.

      His final statement: “We dont negotiate grades!”

  8. Fred Says:

    I am entering the conversation too late so a lot has already been written.
    Frankly:

    “What is missing also is a more coherent perspective on what we still expect the state to do in subsidising higher education – a point on which Britain’s recent strategic review (the Browne report) is, in my view, really rather weak.” i agree

    “But we need to have a framework that replaces it that shows some understanding of what higher education is actually for, and that can explain to a tetchy population why the old model could neither fund higher education satisfactorily nor make it equitable…” well we are rather going to a US model but from a rather strange way.

    It is clear that every head of a uni is talking from his university point of view and I think that at this story it would have been better if every stakeholder was talking from a society/student/systemic point of view rather a personal/university one. At the end it was clear that the current system was unaffordable but I strongly believe that the new one will be equaly unsustainable in the long term. One other point of view-a crucial one- is that from what I have already see some international students who are already paying more than 3200 see themselves as clients. They believe that they deserve the degree because they are paying (regardless their performence) so I am afraid that the same will be true for home students under the new scheme despite the absence of upfront fees.

    Students pushing for better quality of teaching/research is a good thing but students pushing for results that they do not deserve is disasterous.

    • copernicus Says:

      Fred

      Bob Cryan has a particular problem. His U of Huddersfield is nestling between good post-92s like Sheffield Hallam to where moet U of Huddersfield students leave to , the moment they realise this university is not delivering, and Teeside which has got its act together and is thriving. Good students are creamed off by Sheffield Hallam. I won’t pay much attention Cryan’s stunt.

      In the UK overseas non -EU students pay a lot, 5 times of what the UK home studens pay.

      Even this tuition fee hike by Browne and British government when goes through House of Lords and then committee stages will have to go through amendments and we expect some concessions in terms of at what threshold pay the repayment starts etc.. Foaming at the mouth now and lashing at Browne nearly everyday is not a mature way of looking at the problem. The wiser will wait and see. As the economy improves, the fee hike will give way to more support from government. At least that is what most MPs think.

      You will see a huge gap opening up between RG and Group94 on one hand and the rest. As for RG and Group94 they have their own punters. In my opinion, the weak universities like Hudderfield will wither away and Sheffiled Hallam will be the beneficiary.


  9. […] situation from Ireland, the President of Dublin City University Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski writing in his blog says that in this new world of higher education, nobody is actually “buying” a commodity, or […]


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