We don’t have students any more – just customers

Opinion: Irish higher education is increasingly commercial in its approach to teaching and research

With the globalisation and deregulation of trade, governments are increasingly susceptible to the influence of powerful commercial interests. Organisations such as the OECD, the World Bank and the EU mediate this influence and thereby exercise in direct control over national higher education systems.

Over the past 20 years, several OECD, EU and World Bank reports proclaim the universities to be the intellectual engine of a global economy rather than a global society.

Irish higher education has been given an explicit remit to be more commercial in its teaching and research operations in the Government’s national strategy for higher education to 2030, where it is states that third-level institutions should “strike a balance between the demands of the market and their academic mission”.

This policy is being implemented and is evident in research funding priorities. Under the State’s main research programme between 2000 and 2013, 82 per cent of all funding was given to science, technology, engineering and related subjects.


Of the 14 research priority areas outlined for Ireland in the report of the research prioritisation steering group in 2012, not one is in the social sciences, education, arts or humanities.

An equally significant way in which commercialisation is impacting on teaching and research in higher education is in the institutionalisation of market norms and values in the governance of universities and other colleges of higher education.

New managerialism (or what is sometimes called new public service management) has been in operation in Ireland for the past 20 years. It is based on a neoliberal understanding of governance, in which the market is regarded as the ideal mechanism for the allocation and delivery of public services.

Colleges of higher education are no longer just expected to be democratically accountable and efficient in their educational systems (which they traditionally have been). They are also expected to promote commercial interests and values throughout their operations. They are required to adopt business models of governance where “the bottom line” of measurable productivity and output is prioritised at all costs.

Universities are increasingly under pressure to change from being independent centres of higher education and critical scholarship, maintaining their distance from powerful vested interests (be these commercial, political or other) to being service-delivery operations for the market economy.

Within this framework, the very meaning of education mutates from its original focus on human development in a holistic sense to being a producer of human capital for the market economy. The cultural shift is symbolised in the use of market language, referring to students as “customers” or “clients”.

When success is judged exclusively by measurable performances (rankings and league tables of colleges, schools and people) what cannot be numerically recorded becomes inconsequential. The outcome is that the ethic of care for students (and for staff) is subordinated to market success.

Issues of equality of access and participation in education are said to matter. Yet, economic inequality is allowed to rise in the economy, which resulted in almost 34 per cent of Irish third-level students being at risk of poverty in 2014.

Cuts to the public funding of education come with the implementation of market principles (a cut from 80 per cent state funding of Irish higher education in 2008 to just 65 per cent in 2015), so students are inevitably seen through the lens of market value, either as sources of funding, or in terms of reputational value to the university.

One of the unintended consequences of institutionalising market values is that these over-ride and weaken other values in education. Social and moral values are relegated in importance. Trust, integrity, care, public commitment and solidarity are subordinated to regulation, monitoring, control and competition.

With the glorification of competition and individual success, the pursuit of economic self-interest and credentials among students, and career interests among staff, becomes virtuous.

Student and staff idealism to work in the public interest is implicitly and, at times, explicitly discouraged.

While the market may have become the primary producer of cultural value in Ireland, in a democratic society citizens are not customers, and education remains a basic human right underpinned by international law.

As stated in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

The values incorporated in the governance and priorities of higher education must reflect the fact that education is a human right and that it is also a public good that greatly enriches cultural, social and political life, outside of its market value.

Kathleen Lynch is professor of equality studies at UCD. She is engaged in a major study of equality in higher education funded by the Irish Research Council. She is the co-author of New Managerialism in Education (2015)