Culture Shock: Stark lesson of imposing market values on third level

As State support has been cut drastically – a fall of 25 per cent in five years – students are increasingly situated as paying customers and the colleges as providers of a product

The marketisation of education: a Grant Thornton report points out that that Irish universities have become again, at their core, private institutions. Photograph: Thinkstock

The marketisation of education: a Grant Thornton report points out that that Irish universities have become again, at their core, private institutions. Photograph: Thinkstock


One of the great achievements of modern culture is the idea of third-level education as a public good. In the decades after the second World War, developed countries on both sides of the East/West divide accepted the notion that men and women who had the academic capacity to do so should be able to attend a university or an institute of technology. This right was seen as an extension of the right to a primary and then a secondary education. It was understood to have long-term economic benefits but, just as importantly, to be essential to the cultural vibrancy and democratic health of a society. However imperfectly implemented in practice, the principle seemed set to become more deeply embedded over time.

Now, however, it is being radically dismantled. Third-level colleges are increasingly being imagined as businesses, like any others. The language in which they are described has less to do with knowledge, teaching, learning, personal development or social liberation and more to do with marketing, branding, funding and the maximisation of earnings. At the heart of this shift, there is an inescapable contradiction. On the one hand, the “product” the colleges are supposed to sell is laden with ideas of cultural and social value. On the other, the “outcome” they are supposed to achieve – financial success – is indifferent to those values. No wonder third-level education is in crisis.

A recent report from Grant Thornton points out that Irish universities have now become again, at their core, private institutions. For the period the report covers, between 2007 and 2011, “the split between private and public tuition fees was 44 per cent public funded versus 56 per cent private funded on average for the university sector”. As State support has been cut drastically – a fall of 25 per cent in five years – students are increasingly situated as paying customers and the colleges therefore as providers of a product.

But there is an irony here. Those who believe markets automatically work to improve the quality of services would expect that the rapid marketisation of third-level education would create a more customer-driven (which is to say student- focused) system. In fact, the opposite is happening. Students want, above all, direct contact with their teachers. In Irish colleges this is becoming harder and harder – for the obvious reason that there are more students and fewer teachers. In the five-year period 2007 to 2011, undergraduate enrolments in the Irish university sector increased by 11.6 per cent while postgraduate enrolments, which are much more demanding of staff time, increased by 21.5 per cent. Staff numbers fell by 7 per cent over the same period.

Another thing the market is supposed to provide is choice. But again, the marketisation of third-level education works in the opposite way. Its business logic is to boost courses that make the most money – that is, the ones that get the maximum number of paying customers through the mill at the least expense – and to cull courses that do not earn sufficient profits. We’ve seen this happening over the last decade, especially in the humanities, as chairs in “obscure” subjects have gone unfilled. The current argument is for choice to be restricted even further. The Grant Thornton report points, chillingly, to “opportunities to rationalise redundant programmes and evaluate the continued relevance of costly ones or ones that are in deficit”. The deficit referred to is, of course, purely financial.

The final irony is that making students into customers actually makes it harder to attract those customers. One of the big strategies for Irish higher education is to turn it into a global business. Ireland is to be a “world-class education destination”. Enterprise Ireland’s Education in Ireland “brand” (its word) planned to double the number of (fee-paying) international students studying in Ireland by 2015. All the signs are that it will be a failure. The marketisation of third-level education in Ireland has gone hand in hand with a marked drop in international students; down 12 per cent between 2007 and 2010 and a further 6 per cent in 2011.

There’s no great mystery about this: international students are attracted by high educational standards and good teaching, not by consumerist appeals to brand loyalty. They quickly cop on that a system that’s cramming more and more students in front of fewer and fewer teachers for an ever narrower range of courses is not “world-class”.

It’s not too late to rethink all of this. There are two obvious directions in which Irish third-level institutions can go. One is the path outlined by Grant Thornton: more fee income, more appeals to alumni to make up shortfalls in State grants, more attempts to attract international students, more culling of unprofitable courses, more attempts to attract speculative capital (“The higher education sector is considered to have all the hallmarks for further private equity interest and investment”). But the evidence so far suggests that, even if this were a good idea, it is self-defeating. The more colleges become businesses, the less meaning they have as cultural and educational institutions.

The other path is a political recognition that third-level education is not a consumer product but a social, economic and democratic imperative. Ireland actually does need a “world-class” education system – from preschool to postgrad – if it is to survive in the coming decades. It already has some real excellence in the old-fashioned areas of researching and teaching. Recognising and valuing it for its own sake might be a good place to start.

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