In March, I posted “The Commericalization of Academia: A Case Study” to LGM. This past weekend, Rob drew my attention to this review essay by Christopher Newfield published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The subject of the review is The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education by Andrew McGettigan. I’ve not read the book, but you can rest assured it’s on my list for the next time I find myself in my local branch of Amazon.
Newfield addresses many of the same themes I did in March, only he does so without the anecdotal specificity, but rather from a broader perspective. I concentrated on how my institution, and actors within my institution, react to shifting incentive structures initially imposed exogenously (and then trickle down through the structure of the institution itself). His excellent essay examines where this is coming from, and more critically, why.
The reasons addressing the why question for public consumption are first, universities had to shoulder their fair share of the necessary austerity budget introduced after the coalition victory in 2010, thus the teaching grants from the central government that universities had relied upon for the foundation of their budget were largely zeroed out and replaced with tuition fees allowed to treble in one big bang, themselves funded by a state run loan system. Second, the marketization of higher education in England and Wales would result in an improvement in the quality of education. Because that’s what markets always do.
Newfield dispenses with both of these explanations with efficient ease. Instead, he suggests a different motivation:
This larger project is rarely admitted but easy to state: it is to turn the United Kingdom’s public university system into a commercial business sector with a right to public subsidies.
But that still doesn’t fully answer the question:
(W)hy privatize? The Tories seek to transform public higher education into a market-driven and financialized business, but why? Is it mostly for the immediate financial benefit of Tory-favored industries? Is it the sheer force of neoliberal belief — privatization for its own sake? Both of these? Something else?
A full answer is beyond the scope of both McGettigan’s book and this review, but I can at least point in what I am sure is the right direction, one confirmed by McGettigan’s analysis. The deeper purpose of the Tory changes is to end the post-World War II reformation of universities in the West, which created mass access to university studies roughly equal in quality to those elites enjoyed. We could call this the Great Democratization, and its genius, particularly in the United States, was to build an infrastructure for delivering mass quality — cutting-edge teaching and research, the latest in scientific, social, and cultural developments — to the children of doctors, construction workers, corporate executives, cash register salesmen, film stars, department store clerks, truck drivers, computer scientists, and migrant farm workers, that is, to the entirety of society in accordance with their motivation and preparation. Certainly there were whole populations that had to fight their way into this system, and that still must fight. But the regulative ideal was that even if you couldn’t get into the most selective universities — Harvard, Oxford, et al. — you could receive an education of quality similar to what you’d have received there. The United States had an abundance of immersive liberal arts colleges and public research universities as good as any university in the world, signaled by then-UC President Clark Kerr’s pleasure in the fact that a 1964 review found more top-ranked departments at UC Berkeley than at Harvard. Importantly, the quality of the public universities did not depend on their selectivity, which was then low at Berkeley and everywhere else. In the United Kingdom, students at Sussex could study with the world’s pioneers in science policy studies, or at Birmingham with their equivalents in cultural studies, without feeling like rejection from Cambridge had put a cap on the development of their creative capabilities. Massive public funding enabled this rough equalization, this evolving democratization, of academic quality.
And that’s where we have the true target:
The Tory counterreformation takes aim at all of these postwar democratizing features. The government’s 2011 white paper affirms that universities are in some part public goods, but then zeros out the public good of social and cultural fields by cutting their teaching grants to zero. The public funds for non-cost-benefited enrollments, for remedial, experimental, or innovative programs, will in the new system be available only if they point toward future revenue growth. The independence of academic governance from financial management is greatly reduced. If Thatcher once famously remarked, “there is no such thing as society,” Cameron has operationalized this as the somewhat less resonant, “there is no such thing as a public good.” For these latter-day Tories, even educational goods are private, and so the arbitrator is the market, which grants presiding authority to the business structure and to the leading figures and firms in the relevant sectors.
Newfield outlines three ramifications of this counter-reformation. First, the traditional model of leaving academic governance to academics is eroded (at best in my decade at my present institution, it’s been limited anyway) instead replaced by the logic of the market economy. I noted an anti-intellectual bias in the administration at my institution in my March post; this is perhaps best illustrated by remarks made by one in a leadership position a couple tiers above me at a departmental meeting immediately following the awkward Saturday closure of the Politics major (May 2010). We were informed that the shutdown would not be on the agenda for the meeting, but we placed it there anyway. He opened by acknowledging the intellectual contribution our department of (a bunch of muddled words strung together which seemed to imply some nebulous form of critical post-modernism as he only vaguely understood it), but that what we, and our students, really need here is a more objective business-oriented approach to scholarship. I interrupted with a comment along the lines of “wow, if you only had any idea who we are, you’d know that description doesn’t fit” (there are no post-modernists in my department, for example).
Second, instead of a progressive expansion in enrolment, erosion in student numbers will now occur. While I can only speak to my experience at my institution (and my program), this is precisely what happened. We had a spike in numbers for the 2011/12 cohort, the last admitted under the old tuition regime. They get to pay the old £3200 per year through their three years of study. One ramification of this spike is that my final year class is oversubscribed by 40%. It then cratered in 2012/13, and hasn’t recovered.
Finally, Newfield suggests that a polarisation of quality will only increase, and that universities in the “mass of mass higher education” will face financial challenges that, it is implied, will force us to make cutbacks. We’re fortunate in that we’re not feeling this heat just yet, but it’s impossible to say how this will play out in the near future. And, of course, I’ve reduced my administrative responsibilities over the past few years, resigning as department chair in 2010, and stepping down as undergraduate “programme manager” this past August, so I no longer have direct access to the same level of data I sued to have.
One advantage of the centralised, unitary of government here in Britain is that this can be undone by the next government if it so desired in one act. The Liberal Democrats are going to lose about half of their support, partially due to reneging on the pledge made in their 2010 manifesto to not increase tuition fees (which of course they proceeded to ignore once they received a seat at the big kids table). If they find themselves in a coalition with Labour, undoing this damage should be at the top of a Lib Dem agenda as a means to right the wrongs they’re committing in the present government. Or a Labour majority government can re-orient higher education in the United Kingdom from the commercialised morass it is, and return it to the public good it is better understood to be, allowing for equality of opportunity, aspiration, and upward mobility. Or at least the perception of those things.
Sadly, given the track record of the last Labour government (1997-2010) in undoing the neoliberal agenda of the previous Conservative government (1979-1997), I’m not confident that such an approach will be adopted.