log in

  • Published in Book Reviews

The government’s aim to marketise higher education entirely is laid bare clearly and effectively in The Great University Gamble, finds Paul Hartley

Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (Pluto 2013), 232pp.

The coalition government has sustained itself with the narrative that when it came to power in 2010 the country was inches away from bankruptcy. To save us from economic collapse, it was necessary to embark on a radical project of cutting back the public sector. We have been repeatedly told that Britain is unable to afford current levels of spending on healthcare, pensions, public-sector salaries, welfare or community support. Therefore, savage cuts must be made to the system designed to protect the poorest in our society.

Because this narrative has, on the whole, been uncritically accepted by the mainstream media, the coalition has been able to present its reforms shrewdly as a politically neutral means of reducing state spending. Yet, behind the narrative of deficit reduction something far more radical is taking place, driven by an ideological vision of the relationship between the state, citizens and business.

Since coming to power, the coalition government has set in motion a monumental restructuring of the way in which public services are funded and provided. By now, it is clear that austerity is merely a banner behind which the government is transforming the public sector. Were the country to emerge from recession, the government would have no intention of restoring pre-2008 spending levels or reversing its structural changes. The privatised state is here to stay.

Although cuts to welfare have provoked the most anger in the country, the structural changes to the public sector are likely to have a deeper and more lasting effect on society. However, the scale of the government’s project has escaped most observers. Certain pieces of high-profile legislation, such as Andrew Lansley’s NHS bill, have rightly attracted attention and protest. Nonetheless, many of the changes have taken place without legislative change and without being presented to the public for scrutiny. It is becoming increasingly clear that Cameron’s project is no less huge and no less destructive than Margaret Thatcher’s.

To understand the scale of the coalition’s restructuring of the British state it is necessary to connect the dots and dig behind the headline legislation. The Great University Gamble does just that, and shows that the government’s changes to the higher-education system are in reality part of a single, conscious project of restructuring the whole of the sector. The greatest difficulty in understanding the government’s policy for higher education is the fact that most of its reforms have taken place behind the scenes, without primary legislation passing through parliament. McGettigan’s meticulously researched book pulls back the curtain on the government’s project to reveal the frightening scale of its plans.

McGettigan argues that, since it came to power, the government’s agenda has been to ‘break what appears to its ideologues as a state monopoly in higher education’ (p.2). The project has not bluntly been called privatisation because it does not entail the sale of state-owned assets in the way that Thatcher’s sale of public utilities did.  Although universities remain for the most part government funded, they are not state-owned institutions and their staffs are not civil servants. Most commonly they are independent institutions with charitable status in receipt.

Yet what is happening in higher education is a subtler, but no less revolutionary, form of privatisation. The government intends to liberalise dramatically the market for higher education, on both the supply and the demand sides. McGettigan argues that we must see the present tranche of higher-education reforms as a transitional phase which will eventually lead to a full-scale marketisation of the whole sector.

The government believes that universities should behave more like commercial providers operating in a free market. Therefore, a much broader selection of providers should be able to award degrees and compete against the established providers. Such a free market in higher education does not yet exist, so it must be created artificially. This is what the government is undertaking at the moment, and it entails several major reforms.

Direct government funding of courses is being cut in favour of direct fees, which is intended to remove what the government regards as a state subsidy unfairly biased against new providers. Arts, humanities and social science degrees no longer receive any direct funding from the government. McGettigan describes this change as an ‘internal privatisation’ of the sector (p.25). At the same time, universities are being encouraged to act more like private enterprises by expanding their commercial activities and attracting private finance.

At the same time, regulation of the sector is being dramatically cut back with the aim of enabling new, small participants to compete with the current universities. A symbolic example of the government’s approach is that the title ‘university’ will now be awarded to institutions much more freely, allowing small colleges and private institutions to call themselves universities. For example, the number of registered full-time students that an institution will need in order to apply for university status will drop from four thousand to one thousand.

Similarly, the title ‘degree’ will be granted to courses much more freely. A likely result of this change is that there will be an expansion in the number of shorter, low-quality degrees offered by universities. A foreseeable result of these reforms is that universities will reduce their teaching and assessment standards. Similar reforms in the USA have enabled the number of for-profit organisations offering what have been called ‘subprime degrees’ to expand greatly (p.103).

There is a strategic discrepancy within the government’s desire to open up higher education to the market. If higher education is to be governed by market forces, degree courses must be treated like commodities, and students like consumers.

Students purchase – for a high price – degrees that will add value to their future salaries; universities compete for students’ money; and student fees, rather than government grants, decide where funds are allocated around the system.

This vision is based on ideology rather than logic, and the problems with it are manifold and dangerous. There is no intrinsic reason to believe that marketisation will improve the quality of universities. On the contrary, a foreseeable effect will be that universities will divert resources from quality of teaching to managing their place in league tables. That is the experience in the USA, where expenditure on non-teaching resources, such as student accommodation and leisure facilities ‘has become conspicuous and driven more by a need to outdo rivals publicly’ (p.62).

To treat degrees as commodities, it is necessary to overlook the social functions of universities. These range from grand ideas, such as the maintenance and transmission of culture, to the more mundane, such as the availability of university resources to communities. Instead, the focus is on the individual value of degrees to students. To commodify education further, students must be encouraged to think of themselves as consumers purchasing an investment that will bring them higher wages and greater career prospects. However, this is to ignore the social value of education for its own sake.

As McGettigan points out, these reforms are taking place with little public oversight. The government’s back-room approach has allowed it largely to bypass public debate. When drafting its reforms, it consulted with business leaders, financiers and university vice-chancellors, but not academics and the public. More significantly, there has been no headline higher-education reform bill, which has meant that even parliament has been left in the dark about the scale of the government’s plans. Consequently, the public has very little idea about the extent of the changes and has not been consulted on proposals that will significantly affect the future of higher education in the UK.

In aiding our understanding of the government’s higher education policy, The Great University Gamble is timely and vital. However, it is also an indication of the changes that are taking place in all other sectors. The project McGettigan sheds light on in the higher-education sector is taking place across the public sector – most clearly in healthcare provision and welfare. Many of these changes are already underway, but it is not too late to build a mass movement that would bring them to wider public attention and halt their progress.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now