As part of my research interests, I have been drawn to reflect on the potential social impact of a scenario in which Higher Education in the United Kingdom, and in particular the field of the humanities, may become increasingly privatized, embracing the tenets of an unbridled capitalist market. This would likely entail a widening of existing inequalities, as well as a weakening of the critical approach that institutions such as universities are able to foster through the fundamental bedrock of the field of human and social sciences and cultural studies. The immediate concern is that just as growing inequality separates the wealthy few from increasingly large strata of society, so the increasing managerialization of universities would further broaden economic divides by submitting completely to market forces. A related danger could be a strengthening of the delusional claim, related to neoliberal ideology, that a new and increasingly privatized ‘knowledge economy’ would benefit society at large. In fact, such an outcome would probably undermine the very role of universities as institutions that can manage a degree of independence from such forces, fostering social critique and struggles for equality.
The Second Convention for Higher Education, a group devoted to “putting university values back at the heart of higher education”,1 reflected recently on some of these dangers. The convention criticized the latest Higher Education White Paper 2016, that was recently presented to the parliament.2 While the White Paper (p. 5) claimed to make “the possibility of participation in it a reality for more people than ever before, its claim to “succeed as a knowledge economy”, achieved through “quicker and easier for new high quality challenger institutions” to be “a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market” (p. 10), the Convention criticized it on the grounds that the former would view Higher Education “as if it were nothing more than an investment in human capital” through “private providers”.3 For the CHE, the White Paper is little more “than an agency to ensure market competition”, not intended to support students through teaching quality, but rather to enable private providers to have access to high tuition feed.4 This critique was echoed by the UCU union, claiming that the White Paper would “weaken constitutional protections for university statutes protecting academic freedom – because academic freedom is apparently ‘anti- competitive’.”5 A critical stance was also adopted by Stephen Parker, who illustrated through an explanation of the Gini co-efficient a relation between higher income, access to education, and the spiralling of income inequality.6 Parker also made an important point: even if universities “don’t control the drivers of earnings inequality such as the tax transfer system and the minimum wage level”, and even if they do they control “global capitalism, the knowledge economy and the demand for ever-increasing skill levels”, they nevertheless have power to “help distribute more evenly the spoils of higher education and disrupt the patterns of inherited advantage, which increasingly divide society”; it is at university, thus, that “we need first to understand how advantage is transmitted through education and how stratification comes about within education”.7
The issues raised by the Convention could be seen to suggest that the complete subjugation of universities to the marketplace of education would determine access and performance in such a way as to reinforce structural and systemic privileges. It could also determine situations in which universities may lose sight of their crucial role in aiming to address societal struggles towards social mobility, inclusion, and diversity. Such struggles are often domesticated and sold in the forms of progressive call to arms or claims to multiculturalism and equality in the rhetoric of corporate communication, but the actual agendas of financial interests could be argued to rarely go effectively beyond a face value glorification of hyper-individualism and a general drive to consumerism. Weakening or dismantling social accountability and independence of judgement in favour of a quantified, managerial, performance-driven model ––both in terms of access and pedagogy––could be argued to sounds in many ways at odds with the intent of democratizing education. These claims would remain unsubstantial and paradoxical because they would take place in an increasingly brutal and unequal structure of financial power and class segmentation. Quite worryingly, the idea that participation base can be widened through a market-oriented, industry-biased model seems to be taking place in an atmosphere of increased devaluation and domestication, at the hands of quantifiable outcomes, of the critical approach to society that characterizes the field of the humanities. Conceiving higher education as entirely market-driven could put at risk the role of universities as powerful progressive institutions and environments in which to nurture a fundamental, critical approach to the thriving and divisive ideology of neoliberalism.8
2 Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility a& Student Choice. Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills by Command of Her Majesty – May 2016 www.gov.uk/government/publications
4 In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society (The Alternative White Paper).
5 UCU newsletter: The HE White Paper and the Alternative WP, 19 May 2016, 17:05 .
8 See Radice, U. (2013), ‘How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 12 (3), pp. 407-418.