When one phenomenon gets blamed for literally everything that goes wrong, my spidey senses start tingling. What is this “marketization” exactly? How do we know it is to blame for everything? And – most importantly – can this claim reasonably be challenged through alternative explanations, or is it just an article of faith?
At the heart of the claim around marketization is that institutions must now “compete against one another for students” and “treat them as customers”. And there is one sense where this is true: UK universities now make up most of their teaching budgets from tuition fees. But there is another sense in which this focus on fees is a distraction. For a couple decades now, 100% of teaching funds have followed students. Previously, funds for teaching came through a general funding formula and now these funds are directly linked to tuition fees. This is not to say that there aren’t reasons to suspect that UK universities aren’t competing with each other more than they used to: certainly, the language they use to describe their activities and to some extent the way they behave in terms of their marketing and outreach activities is shaped by this competition. But fees may not be the main force influencing this language.
One very big change over the past few years has been the removal of student number caps, which has allowed institutions to grow in ways that were previously not possible. At one level, you might think that’s a recipe for less competition, since it means the overall size of the pie is growing and everyone – in theory – could benefit. But what seems to have happened is that as individual institutions have grown aggressively – even faster than overall demand – some institutions at the bottom end of the scale have in fact seen their absolute numbers fall. Add to that the fact that even though 100% of institutional teaching funds were tied to student numbers both pre- and post the 2012 reform, the enrolment-weighted figures did contain an annual buffer whereas in the current system, universities have to entirely live on their tuition income every year. Simply put, even if there is more money sloshing around the system (my rough estimates a couple of years ago was that average per-student institutional funding rose by about 25% from 2011 to 2016 in the UK), funding is more volatile than it used to be. And universities, with their large fixed costs, abhor uncertainty. But remember – this is all due to the change in the student numbers cap, not tuition fees per se.
One way to check whether the issue is volatility or “marketization” is to examine what is happening to higher education in other jurisdictions (Alberta and Newfoundland, both of which are experiencing tuition freezes at the moment, are reasonable control cases). Does marketization have an obvious relationship to changes in student mental health? Not really; regardless of fee regimes, concern about young adults’ mental health is rising. A pronounced effect on institutional financial risk-taking? Not really: US private 4-year institutions without large endowments face similar levels of volatility and we tend not to see a lot of University of Reading-style financial shenanigans there. In Canada, the University of Toronto or Cape Breton University, which now get most of their money from fees, aren’t exactly becoming financial gamblers either. Might they lead to large rises in Presidential pay? Possibly: Presidential remuneration is high in places like the US and Australia, where fee income plays a major role in institutional finances, but Canada is a counter-example: Presidential pay can be reined in through legislation if governments wish to do so.
In short, the notion that there is something deeply weird going on in UK academia seems to me undeniable. There’s a better argument that the external force at work here is volatility rather than “marketization” per se (the two are related but are not identical). But frankly that doesn’t explain the full level of weirdness we see in UK Higher Education. Though the external policy stimuli we are seeing in the UK are occurring to various degrees in other English speaking countries, the institutional reaction is very different and more extreme.
If you want to get all Sapir-Whorfian about it, maybe Stefan Collini is right after all , and the UK government’s constant use of all those market metaphors to describe English higher education have created their own reality in terms of the way university leaders respond to financial incentives. Maybe. Or, maybe, UK vice-chancellors are more susceptible to heroic/charismatic theories of institutional leadership and are consequentially more reckless than their counterparts in, say, Canada.
I don’t have a good answer to all this yet. But it does seem to me that marketization may not be the only explanation. There is a distinction between marketization and volatility that needs further exploration. There is evidence that UK HE is sui generis which is stronger than the general assertion that what is happening there is an inevitable consequence of “marketization”. As is often the case, generalize across national boundaries at your peril.