Blogs > Cliopatria > Against marketization becoming marketisation

May 30, 2011

Against marketization becoming marketisation

There are really very few things that make me proud to be British. And certainly this is not the intended reaction to this fine article by Howard Hotson in the London Review of Books of which I learnt from the blog Historian on the Edge, which is much more about what's wrong with the capitalist/consumerist model for higher education with which we are becoming grimly familiar here and which is required reading, I think, for anyone in the English-speaking HE world. All the same, when he concludes:

"The natural interpretation of the World University Rankings flies in the face of the key assumption underpinning current British government policy. Market competition in the United States has driven up tuition fees in the private universities and thereby sucked out the resources needed to sustain good public universities, while diverting a hugely wasteful share of these resources from academic priorities to improving the ‘student experience’ and debasing academic credentials through market-driven grade inflation. The partially privatised university system in the United States is not ‘the best of the best’. In terms of value for money, the British system is far better, and probably the best in the world. Willetts [current UK Minister for Education, and architect of the current public defunding of higher education here] should follow the example of the health secretary, take advantage of a ‘natural break in the legislative process’, and go back to the drawing board."

... I find it difficult not to feel at least a little proud, because, you know, this thing that we have apparently maintained—and Hotson has the figures to support his argument, and his arithmetic is crystal clear and easy to follow—has been under attack for a while, and is now under even more attack, but apparently we've held on thus far despite the odds against.1 How long it can last, who knows, but it seems worth making a stink about. The trouble is that I very much doubt Willetts et al. would change their minds even if they read this article, but if I knew that they had and persisted anyway, then I think I would be sure that there was no hope for sense and that the administration is basically in hock to some financial interest or other that has a stake in this marketisation of English HE.

Because, you know, what he writes of, it is happening. Here in the Oxbridge system where I sit, there are people I know and like, and whom I don't think see themselves as élitist, saying that things have now got so bad that there is no incentive for us to remain under government control, that it is better for Oxbridge to go private and charge what it thinks best than lose so much of its time, effort and academic freedom maintaining the excellence-without-money ethic we are being pushed into.2 And that Oxbridge education would be in the World University Rankings top twenty no trouble, I'd have thought; it would be among the `best' of the `best'. But, in as many ways as you'd like to read the phrase, at what cost?

1. Howard Hotson, "Don't Look to the Ivy League" in London Review of Books Vol. 33 no. 10 (19th May 2011), pp. 20-22, online as free sample here.
2. An example from close to home being Nicholas Bamforth, "Fees, Education and University Autonomy" in The Oxford Magazine no. 312 (Oxford 2011), pp. 3-5.

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