What is causing the marketization of higher education?

The marketization of the university is held to be a product of neoliberalism, of the need to put everything in terms of the bottom dollar. This last word is where I wish to depart from the usual interpretation. Marketization is an American phenomenon, and yet there is too little focus on its specifically national context. Rather than the national, the international in terms of globalization is held to be at the root of what is happening in higher education in the US, and now increasingly in the UK* and, Western Europe. But are we not jumping the gun?

I wish to emphasize here that we are always already dealing with a complex information exchange. It is a question of a knowledge ecology rather than a knowledge economy. It is not that a law is passed, or a budget is approved, an administrative decision is taken, a fiat is imposed. This is a static view of matter whereby X says Y, and Z happens. Rather, there is an iterative process of consultation, discussion, evaluation, balancing. The decisions taken regarding higher education do not exist in isolation.

In this policy ecology, education matters are impossible to isolate from other government policy priorities, but disciplinary blinkers may cause us to do something along these lines. What we see happening in the US is a trend, not a guaranteed path. It’s contingent on a whole host of interrelating issues and processes, rather than being the necessary outcome of some undeniable “reality”.

References to ‘reality’, or ‘economic reality’ to which we are all apparently obliged to adjust, are not efforts at clarification, but rather at obfuscation. To talk of ‘reality’ is a rhetorical move, an effort to portray your own version of events as the sequence of events, as what really happened. It is another element of that jargon of marketization, namely There Is No Alternative. We have to come to terms with changed circumstances, we are all on the same playing field now, this is the way things are, and on and on…

Let’s resist this and refocus our attention. There is a policy ecology which as part of its diverse ecosystem includes government budgets, laws (at the national or local level), wider constraints on funding, etc. This is true for the US, as it is for all places, but as many of the changes which are feeding into international higher education come from the US, we would do well to focus on what makes the US different, rather than what makes it a test case, a prototype of what is coming down the line for other countries.

A report from a few years back gives us a route to examine this. In this publication by the Pew Centre on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America (2008), we can trace some of the reasons behind the incredible changes that have been taking place within higher education in the US. It traces the increase in funding for ‘corrections’, prisons, and the effects this has had on constraining the budgetary options available to state legislators. The issues being discussed need to be carefully understood, and so I quote directly from this report:

Higher education spending accounts for a roughly comparable portion of state expenditures as corrections, and other than tuition is paid for almost entirely out of state rather than federal funds. States don’t necessarily make explicit choices between higher education and corrections funding, but they do have to balance their budgets. So, unlike the federal government, a dollar spent in one area is unavailable for another.

Ellen Shrecker notes the following in The Lost Soul of Higher Education:

Actually, despite their criticism of some academic practices, most state legislators had not abandoned their support of higher education; they were simply caught in a financial bind. […] Moreover, while there was no other way to cover those expenses, many of which were mandated by law, colleges and universities did have another source of revenue: they could raise their tuitions. [p.160]

What we take to be an outcome of the inevitable ‘reality’ of today, the logic of neoliberalism and the market is rather more complicated than that. This may not be a revelation to many, but it is worth reiterating and emphasizing. The changes taking place in higher education in the US are contingent on states’ budget constraints, and what they take to be their only option at balancing competing objectives within their policy contexts. The good news I take from this is that we evade the rhetoric of There Is No Alternative. Marketization, by becoming historical and contingent loses some of its apparent inevitability. It also allows us to reconsider our own higher education landscapes to see that what is being held up as best practice is no such thing. Ellen Schrecker again:

The academic establishment is giving in. Instead of mounting a campaign to explain what really ails higher education and how the states’ dwindling support for their public colleges and unicersities has contributed to their perceived defects, much of the academy’s official leadership is scrambling to show that it can evaluate itself. Just as administrators purged their faculties of suspected Communists in the 1950s in order to keep outsiders from doing it, they are now struggling to implement accountability procedures before trustees and politicians devise ones for them. [p. 185]

In Ireland, where I am based, our policy ecology is rather different. So too is our political system. Our economic situation is less than rosy, and there is too great a focus on austerity and deficit-obsession. But the notion of Ireland as a Republic, and education for its citizens remains. Our economic situation does not take precedence over our future. Our politics is not poisoned by polarising screaming-matches, and this is a strength. The situation does not appear to be the same in other countries, because the narratives that exist (“strivers versus scroungers” springs to mind…) do not serve the greatest number of people.

The notion of citizenship has been eroded into the rubble of competing ‘stakeholders’, a term from the corporate realm, let’s not forget. So, perhaps a first step to redress the imbalance is to get back onto a footing of properly understanding a fuller context of the decisions that affect us. The policy ecology may be a strange bio/infosphere, supposedly only intelligible to wonks in white-paper pith helmets, but it affect us all. It is the boring, but necessary grammar through which we must understand our political and social reality. Hiding behind nouns that purport to explain more than they do are of too little assistance in developing responses to the problems that confront us.


[* = Everything I know about the UK version of this comes from Andrew McGettigan, and his strip-mining of this topic is a remarkable piece of work (great review of his book here). I am not going down his route, as wide and deep analysis is not best served in a blog post of c.1000 words. I am here but making a passing observation. McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble is required reading for all those interested in these matters, even if (like me) your national context is far from such wacky extremes as are to be found in UK higher education. Work like that carried out by McGettigan is exactly the type I am discussing when I say we must understand the grammar of our world as it is affected by policy.]


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