Luke's Notes

On the Marketisation of Universities

Between 2010-13 I wrote some blog posts (links at the bottom) about the privatisation and marketisation of universities in the UK (and elsewhere - for example, Chile, Canada, and the USA). This was as £9000 student contributions to their fees were being introduced in England. Some key themes were emerging then which seem relevant now more than ever as savage cuts and redundancies across UK HE are being pursued by university managements. I made some predictions in these blogs that have not happened, but seem as possible now as then.

What kind of university

Students paying the full £9000 fees for their education at English universities came in in 2012 and universities were starting to expand courses that brought in cash and closing down those that were expensive to run. So money-spinning management and business courses were expanding and lower-income continuing and adult education, which was very prevalent in the UK, was being closed down university by university. The latter sector at mainstream universities has now pretty much gone (with exceptions like Birkbeck College).

When I started working at a UK university in 1990, tutors were expected to provide modules that were educationally valuable and would contribute to the public good. Increasingly post-2010 they were being told to design courses that attracted the maximum income. This started to lead to a different content to education, critical thinking being replaced by conformity to cash.

These changes were about what university education is about. Universities were no longer publicly financed and geared to educating for the public good. They were becoming consumer funded and producing products for sale. Decisions about what was provided were being driven not by educational criteria but by what the market demands - courses that will attract income on the market rather than those geared to social need or the enhancement of culture.

Universities started ploughing money into marketing and glitzy buildings, designed to appeal to applicants as much as function for those that use them. At my university new buildings were supposed to have what managers called the 'wow factor', dazzling on admissions days and not built primarily for their function for education. One new building at Sussex University had a massive atrium intended to wow applicants and their parents, which took up much space that could have been used for education. Recently at Brighton University there was huge spend on fancy new buildings, followed by planned cuts and redundancies in humanities.

Investment in the marketised university was being funded by cuts elsewhere, and outsourcing of staff to for-profit companies where typically pensions are poorer, like pay and conditions, and there’s greater job insecurity. Outlay on student recruitment started to increase at the expense of spending on staff and students.

The barrier between public and private

A key issue here was that the boundary between the public and private began to break down. Barriers to where the market and private enterprise were the right institutions were being removed. They were being allowed free rein in the public sector (or technically the charity sector in the case of UK universities) so changing the principles and norms of that sector. What gives the public sector autonomy and distinguishes it was being pushed out. This meant that having an alternative sector geared to public goals began to diminish, leading to wider homogenisation around a society geared more widely to market and money goals.

Labour should be the party of the public sector and the collective good. Yet it started us down this slippery slope by introducing student-paid fees. The case for public education was having to be made by unions and student protestors. Labour had said we should be less dogmatic about the boundaries between the public and private sectors. But when you break down the barriers this is what happens. Allowed free rein, the market changes the principles and norms of the public sector and what distinguishes it.

The shifts in UK higher education in the 2010s were built on the back of Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation of British utilities and New Labour’s subsequent extension of private finance and marketisation into the public sector, in areas like health and education. The agenda was not being pushed in a different direction to privatisation and marketisation, rather this was being reinforced and extended to the public sphere.

Management

Closures and redundancies started to be pushed through by a new breed of manager, separated from more publicly-minded staff, oriented heavily to money and little to education. They spoke the language of income streams. The word ‘education’ rarely passed their lips. In the income stream world, money is not a means to the end of education but the end itself. These managers were hostile to unions and bypassed consultation. Staff didn't dissent out of fear or because they felt there was no point. Often protest was led by students. Managers were itching to put the more wayward staff and students through disciplinary procedures.

Immigration policies and higher education

This process clashed with anti-immigration policies. Universities had been one of the UK’s most high quality industries, attracting impressed students from overseas. But the attraction of universities to international students was being threatened by immigration restrictions. Lucrative international students were being turned away by immigration restrictions or intimidating surveillance by the border agency. This is hitting home even more in 2024 with further tightening on immigration from international students leading to cash crises and ensuing closures and redundancies at universities.

The blogs (below) I wrote dealt with such themes but also a number of other issues: the further future privatisation of university education and its facilitation by government deregulation; international comparisons and precedents; how changes to university pensions fit in; resistance by academics and students; what a public collective higher education could look like; and community, democracy and consultation at the university. Many of the sites where these blogs were posted no longer exist but, where this is the case, there are PDF versions below.

Safeguarding Education: Why we take Industrial Action with a Heavy Heart May 2010, The Badger
The Privatisation of the English University, Spring 2011, Perspectives on Europe
The Privatisation of the University, July 2012, Shifting Grounds
Free Education, Pensions and the University as a Business, July 2012, Shifting Grounds
Fighting for the Public University, November 2012, Open Democracy and Bright Green
The Sussex University Occupation against Privatisation, February 2013, Liberal Conspiracy
Stop the Marketisation of our Universities, March 2013, Shifting Grounds
The Sussex Occupation and the Privatisation of University Education, March 2013, Bright Green
Reply to Article by John Duffy: ‘What Sussex is Gaining’, April 2013, THES
Academics and the Defence of their Universities, June 2013, Bright Green. Video of the talk.
This is why we should fight Outsourcing at Universities, October 2013, Liberal Conspiracy
The Marketisation of our Universities: Economic Criteria get Precedence Over What’s Good in Human Terms, November 2013, LSE blog

Related blog: Critical Academics in Theory and Practice