What’s really behind the drive to paint colleges as businesses?

Opinion: The idea of university marketisation has taken root here despite its obvious shortcomings

It has become unfashionable to speak of higher education as a public service, as vacuous business jargon infiltrates university life. Illustration: Thinkstock

It has become unfashionable to speak of higher education as a public service, as vacuous business jargon infiltrates university life. Illustration: Thinkstock

 

With a widely recognised funding crisis, and the recent appointment of an expert working group on university financing, we face a decisive juncture in the politics of higher education.

Six years of austerity, and relentless increases in the student contribution, have helped normalise the idea of full-blown tuition fees in one guise or another. And while we have not yet fully embraced the “consumer pays” principle prevailing elsewhere in the English-speaking world, there are few, now – even within the university sector – who will publicly defend the idea of universally free higher education. As basic and as general a form of education as an undergraduate degree might seem, the idea that the beneficiary – the student – should pay has become our new “common sense”.

On the surface, it seems reasonable that students should bear at least some of the cost of an education that yields a lucrative professional career (often abroad, in the case of many medical graduates), at least in the form of a state-backed loan or deferred payment. Indeed many have argued this would be preferable to the current half-baked compromise of up-front part-fees coupled with a diminishing exchequer input.

However, such arguments about fairness – that is, arguments concerning whether the state or students should bear the cost of higher education, or in what ratio – overlook the bigger political picture. The main purpose and effect of introducing tuition fees elsewhere has not been to shift the financial burden from the exchequer to the individual, but rather to effect a transformation in our understanding and concept of higher education itself.

Specifically, many of the architects of the Thatcherite revolution in English universities explicitly stated the main purpose of tuition fees was to instil a consumer discipline in students so they would demand higher standards, and in turn, to subject academics and university teachers to the rigours of the market. And indeed it was revealed recently that the UK has saved hardly any public money by increasing annual tuition to a maximum £9,000 (in England), as the government ultimately bears greater costs in the guise of bad loans. The very ideological purpose of tuition fees, then, is not to save money for the state but to instil a kind of discipline in both the production and consumption of academic labour.

 

The need to perform

Ireland has proven more resistant to this way of thinking but only to a degree. For example, UCD’s new president, Andrew Deeks, recently advocated students should accumulate debt “module by module”, specifically so that they would “become aware of the need to perform”.

This might seem attractive, were it remotely true. In the US, tuition fees have increased by 1,120 per cent since 1978 – four times the inflation rate – yet the time students actually spend studying has markedly declined over the same period. The proportion of income that universities spend on teaching has declined, as academic labour is casualised, at the expense of glitzy buildings and facilities that are used as selling points in the hallowed “marketplace” of higher education.

 

Consumerist culture

Just as a consumerist mentality does not enhance student motivation, neither does it necessarily improve the quality of teaching. Indeed, some studies have argued a consumerist culture of student evaluation promotes dumbing-down and “teaching to the test”, as student-consumers will rationally seek to maximise marks for a given effort.

Despite these obvious failings of university marketisation, this new received wisdom is slowly taking root here, partly because university managers, administrators and academics are so deeply influenced by developments in the wider English-speaking world, and especially in our nearest neighbour.

As in England, it has become deeply unfashionable to speak of higher education as a public service, as vacuous business jargon slowly infiltrates university life. In this context, it is easy to overlook that England is the outlier in European terms. Germany, for example, recently abolished tuition fees, and in most European countries with comparable living standards (including Scotland, Denmark and Slovenia), higher education is either completely or almost free.

Perhaps many academics are slow to advocate publicly financed tuition because they are afraid it seems like special pleading. But funding reforms are not really about saving money for the state but rather the ideological aim of transforming our understanding of the “product”.

And in a sense, this simply follows a broader pattern in which the vestiges of social democracy are attacked under the pretext of scarcity and austerity. We should not remain complicit in this: we must not be afraid to defend the idea of higher education as a public service and a public good.

  • Eoin Daly is a lecturer in the school of law, NUI Galway, and writes here in a personal capacity
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