Chapter 18. Conclusion: Arguments, responsibility and what is to be done about marketisation
Richard Scullion, Mike Molesworth and Lizzie Nixon
We could, with justification, conclude this edited collection by pulling the various themes together to illustrate the complexity of the investigation of market-orientation in higher education (HE). We could then simply point out the many contradictions apparent when reading the contributions and then leave them to ‘hang in the air’ by drawing the attention of the reader to the inevitable tensions that arise when asking the types of questions this book does.
However we want to try to move beyond a concluding statement that merely re-states that the Higher Education sector – with its multitude of stakeholders and missions – is bound to have conflicting expectations placed on it, including in terms of how students should be perceived.
What we don’t see in this book are nostalgic calls for a return to a more elitist system, and equally there is no sweeping rejection of the idea that the student should have a say in the type of education they receive. Instead, participation in a university sector that is receptive to contemporary culture is acknowledged as having merit. However there is a difference between being receptive to something and unreflective acceptance of the hegemony of the dominant cultural discourse regardless of context. So we may still gain something valuable by recalling older conceptualisations of the purposes of universities and their distinctive role.
We might also be careful not to reject the concerns expressed in these pages as simply being the ‘vested interests’ of the academy who see’s its roles changing, and see that marketisation might make it accountable in new ways. If we accept that one of the core roles of a university is to investigate phenomena in order to broaden our understanding of them – that universities are valuable to society because they may independently reflect on things – it is appropriate that critique of marketised HE comes from within – indeed it can only come from the academy . It is unrealistic and problematic to envisage than government would itself look to critique its own policy direction. Neither might we expect business or students to undertake the detailed and systematic reflections contained in this book and elsewhere.
Against this background we first review what we believe to be key arguments underpinning the various contributions. This serves as a way of mapping out the common ground that emerges when reflecting on a marketised HE sector and its implications for student identities. Secondly, we ask, in a purposefully contentious manner, who and what are responsible (to blame or praise) for the context, the practices, and the overall purpose of contemporary, marketised universities. This question is not presented for some self-serving cathartic purpose, but rather because the very process of addressing it informs the third and final part of the conclusion: what might now be done, and by whom?
The book is written by academics (some of whom have been or still are also institutional managers) but it is not only for the academy to read, but for policy makers, sector managers, students, potential students and other interested stakeholders (parents, employees taxpayers, etc). The third part of the conclusion therefore offers tentative thoughts on how each of these groups might respond to the issues this book has raised.
Key arguments in the marketisation of higher education?
The book starts by setting out global and historical perspectives to contextualise the emergence of a ‘market-orientation’ in the relationship between university and Government, and more implicitly the relationship between university and society. What we find is that both global economic forces, and historical precedent point to an inevitability of marketisation that seems hard, or even pointless to resist. Instead, ‘we’ must simply react as best we can. Another core theme is a reflection on the motivations for a critique of marketisation in HE. We must be careful to understand the ideological nature of some complaints, where HE is a ‘stand in’ for a more general resistance to neo-liberalism. Yet this does not mean that marketisation is beyond critique. Other themes include a mapping-out of what the terms relating to marketisation and consumption might mean when applied to the HE sector, and related to this a consideration of some consequences of a market-orientation for universities.
This first section illustrates that a major reason that government and institutional management turned to markets as an organising principle was because they seem to hold, as an assumed fact, that expansion of the sector – particularly at the speed policy-makers required – could only be achieved in this way. To governments such expansion seems like a requirement if the economy is to remain globally competitive. Hence fees to help fund expansion and so that students feel that they are paying for a service, league tables to make the product offering transparent to consumers (or customers), performance related pay to ensure that staff deliver the required service, and so on.
These early chapters also start to interrogate the nature and meaning of a marketised HE sector, invariably using the label of ‘quasi-market’ or similar to denote the limits of its transferability from a market to a still largely non-market context (see Roger Brown’s chapter for a fuller explanation of this distinction). Higher Education is yet to be a free market of course (but then such things are elusive even in advanced capitalist economies), rather a certain type of market-orientation has been added to the mix of what now constitutes ‘being’ a university. Even so, it is also clear that with this introduction there is a transformation of HE. In the consumer sphere where a market-orientation has been prevalent for several generations, it is widely held that the purpose of consuming is to be a consumer; the market has the ability to appropriate even anti-consumer practices by developing them as segments within. So the problem is that a market-orientation in the HE context has the potency to diminish spaces for reflection about the market – to inhibit thinking that can be located outside of itself.
This leads to the first key point that we want to make in this concluding chapter; that the very process of becoming marketised in order to achieve specific objectives is likely to significantly shape not just the ‘how’ but also the ‘what’ of higher education expansion. Hence we have reflections on how marketisation commodifies time, looks to use economic criteria such as ‘added value’ to judge worthiness, creates environments where growth for growth’s sake perpetuates the need for ever more marketisation, and where the idea that students consume a service offering is widely accepted.
Part two of the book focuses specifically on some of the manifestations of a marketised HE in practice. These often lead to systemic tensions. Market driven initiatives and a modus operandi familiar to the private commercial sector may collide with an entrenched public service ethos and wary – sometimes hostile – academics and other staff. At a macro-level these tensions may indicate a lack of reflection by those (managers) implementing market-oriented practices, coupled with an unwillingness on the part of many academics to embrace such changes in anything more than a perfunctory manner or to engage in a serious critique of them. There are many specific tensions emerging from the chapters in this section of the book. There is a desire to offer greater access that raises concerns about the ‘quality’ of provision. The development of mission statements in an attempt to mark out a distinctive space for a university, sees almost all universities attempting to occupy similar spaces of ‘excellence’ as a result. Tensions are also caused by institutional managers embracing the idea that a university is a brand, yet many stakeholders acting ‘off brand’, and; the establishment of league tables to incentivise staff, make comparison transparent and informed choice possible, but as with most systems that are operationalised by targets, these are also open to manipulation, distortion and used to serve ‘other’ agendas. This section also starts to signpost the inevitable tensions in expectations of the student role that marketisation creates.
It is not simply that the complex introduction of market-oriented practices inevitably leads to short-term tensions, but that much of this sense of conflict and contradiction is the result of unintended consequences that have yet to be fully realised. This leads to another key point- that of irony and paradox. Perhaps this is illustrated most powerfully by reading chapter eight which outlines a fictitious view of a university based on a future where marketisation continues to shape what a university is and then reading chapter seven that discusses some current mission statements. It is harder to spot differences than might be hoped.
Irony continues when we consider an initiative that would be widely considered socially, ethically and pedagogically worthy – widening participation. Because of the way individual universities competing with each other in the HE marketplace have incorporated this social equity initiative into their own promotional agenda, the outcome is not a widening of participation.
Collectively the implications from the first two sections suggest that marketisation of higher education also asks us to deal with students who are now de facto more like consumers (even if as Ronald Barnett suggests we may hope that a transformation into ‘customers’ may be a more positive thing). This is what the last section of the book focuses on.
This last section shows how a marketised HE environment may create certain dominant student identities, and then, in the way they respond to the idea of student as customer/consumer serves to perpetuate such a discourse. Much of this may well be yet more unintended consequences of the macro decisions being made about the structure and management of the HE sector filtered through a more general shift to a consumer-orientated society (where work and education-for-work are subservient to the potential delights of consumption). What may seem a positive move to ‘put the student at the centre’ may have been appropriated within a market-oriented context to mean accepting and even pandering to consumerist attitudes and behaviour of students who increasingly see it as their right to get what they want from a HE sector as if it is like any other service industry (a holiday, bank account, or restaurant, for example). Whilst offering insights into what this means in the everyday lives of contemporary students (particularly in relation to their expectations and choice practices), this section of the book also offers alternative metaphors for envisaging what is available for students to ‘be’.
We might see ongoing reflection on these metaphors as a positive thing. Perhaps if students realise the narrowness of allowing one discourse to dominate, and if they can comprehend what they are missing by accepting the current vogue to be a consumerist student, some of the more seemingly radical options will be more attainable than they currently appear to be. This implies that it is for the student body to take the lead in responding to the marketised environment they encounter. Indeed that would be the point of a market where the consumer not only has a choice, but must also take responsibility for those choices, but as the following sections will make clear, this is only part of the argument we want to conclude with.
Who is Responsible for the marketisation of higher education?
We now respond to the question that became apparent to us whilst reading each chapter – who or what is responsible (to blame or praise) for our marketised HE sector and thus for its consequences?
Our answer is not unexpected given our own disciplinary backgrounds in consumer culture. We argue that it is all agents who seek, allow or simply passively accept as normal the view that once public concerns and issues with a deeply civic quality are, as Canclini (2001) puts it, now “best answered in the private realm of commodity consumption” (p15). The contributors to this volume have highlighted in various forms and to varying degrees an encroachment of market machinations, coupled with a decline in the value attributed to public voice, common interest and the civic character and role of HE institutions.
These somewhat abstract notions become tangible when they are rooted in everyday practices and when individual agents (including academics and institutional managers) seek (or not), through their actions, to bring about such a civic society. Reading the book in light of broader societal concerns, what seems to be lost as a result of the sector too readily accepting a subservient place within a consumer culture is any place for emancipatory narratives. This is particularly ironic to us given the tradition of emancipatory discourses in consumer research. Researching consumers often uncovers attempts to resist or escape the limitations of the market. Thus higher education may have the potential to stand proud as spatially temporally ‘outside’ consumer culture, as one of a shrinking number of institutions that don’t enact market exchanges, or they may become just one more place for market performances.
At one level all stakeholders, from Government Ministers through to 17 year old ‘would-be’ students, appear to ‘take-for-granted’ the cultural shifts briefly referred to here. When reading these chapters the force of marketisation seems unstoppable like an outside agent acting on ‘powerless’ individuals. So the first site of accountability is the amorphous dominance of a consumerist culture, which amongst other things, crushes the critical faculties of individuals as citizens in favour of individuals as shoppers (Bauman 2008). But of course it is agents in the form of organisations and structures, and as individuals, who enact such a discourse thus establishing and perpetuating its cultural dominance.
Prime amongst these agents in the context of HE is government who continue to shape the underlying institutional arrangements through finance, policy directives and the language used to describe the purposes of modern universities. However where governments are elected democratically they inevitably seek to maintain sufficient public support to retain power. it follows that the general public through their expressed political will (or lack of it) are also responsible for a market-oriented HE sector. Superficially, top-up fees and other private sector initiatives in HE can seem to reduce the burden of public spending and so forms part of a larger discourse advocating lower tax and less direct government involvement. Society gets the higher education it deserves. What this book illustrates is that this focus on resource can only be one part of a broader discussion that includes both what the core purpose of the sector should be and takes account of the many unintended (many negative) consequences of making the sector more responsive to market drivers. As we have also seen here that discussion – about what a university is, or at least what students are – takes place in public and through the media. Here it seems the neo-liberal message is largely supported and presented back to stakeholders.
Managers of the individual institutions also seem surprisingly willing to accept the roles and policies that Government thrusts their way. One reading of this group, especially evident in section two of the book, is that they seem to be following each other by introducing market-oriented practices – in part because they believe their institution simply has no choice but to compete with other universities in ways similar to commercial brands. The lack of reflexivity in their decisions is as striking as their willingness to accept – even embrace – as inevitable, the market logic of growth, internal markets to improve efficiency and to compete for funds, external competition through often superficial branding devices, the use of commercial promotional techniques, and the role of academic as entrepreneur and service provider. Almost inevitably what falls out of this approach is a belief that students must be treated as paying customers. Ripe for further investigation are further more specific studies about how and why these senior managers – many, but not all, academics – appear to be so accepting of the current dominant discourse of consumption in a sphere normally suspicious of any meta-ideology.
In the spirit of reflection we must acknowledge that academics are also culpable for the market-orientation this volume has spoken in great detail about. For a number of reasons academics have allowed their universities to become market spaces. Perhaps academics feel weak and passive through general neglect, through poor collective instincts and even through management coercion. Perhaps it could be that (some or many) academics are themselves seduced by the consumerist culture all about them and so are less willing to stand aside from it (or to see any reason why it might be desirable to do so). Indeed many seek career advancement and so buy into the internal power structures put in place by institutional managers – this is perhaps especially true at newer universities where the idea of genuine collaborative structures and work practices never had time to take hold. Some academics positively embrace the changes to the sector brought about by marketisation. As witnessed in other professions from nursing through to politics, more who teach in HE do so now as what we might call ‘pseudo-academics’ who like the students described in our studies in chapters fifteen and sixteen, buy into a work and spend culture where the ‘job’ of an academic is to maximise efficiency and wait for the rewarding weekend shopping trip. But that clearly is an insufficient answer. This book, in part a critique of current practices of the HE sector, has been created within that very system and its editors and contributors are certainly not martyrs to the cause.
This is not elitism but merely pointing to yet another reason why more of the academic body may be less attuned to the ‘uniqueness of being wedded to a scholarly discipline’ thus more amenable to market influences. It may also be that many academics have little interest in the discipline of learning itself, a point elaborated by Lewis Elton. One consequence of this may be a less developed ability to understand the sometimes subtle and nuisance impact of markets and consumption on pedagogy. Academics may be too wedded to their discipline through grant applications, research, conferences, journal and book publishing such that they hardly notice or greatly care about changes to how institutions are managed or to the student experience.
And so to the part students themselves play in performing marketised HE. However much we might want to ‘blame’ students for changing what it is to work in a university we should mostly resist. It is tempting – especially if you are reading this as you mark a pile of student work that you have been instructed by managers to finish in three weeks in the hope that doing so will favourably impact on student ‘satisfaction’. But this book has helped to illustrate why attributing responsibility to the student body is also flawed. That is not to say that current and ‘would be’ students and their parents are neutral in all of this. They arrive on campus enthused and alive to possibilities but by this time in their lives they have become well-tuned consumers, their wealth of experience in commercial markets has shaped much of the way they respond to their desires, to opportunity, and to choices they face. In Fromm’s words they have adopted a ‘marketing personality’ (1976) where “the emphasis is on having the personal attributes that successfully position the individual in a capitalist system” (Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion 2009).
As part of this baggage bought with them to university, students widely buy into the idea of consumer sovereignty. Often inadvertently this stance acts to reduce the potential value that studying at degree level can offer, for example many students will opt to satisfy often whimsical personal tastes and preferences, rather than immerse themselves in the ambiguity and angst of deep learning. But they do this because HE institutions let them and therefore allow them to see their experience of getting a degree in such a limited way as, for example, no more that a necessary huddle before jobs that provide for consumer pleasures.
Parents of students seem to support their offspring’s instrument approach that, at least superficially, is accommodated in a market-oriented environment. Parents as tax payers and members of the electorate are generally inactive in the debate about quantity and quality of HE provision. This allows resonance to the idea that increased quantity without matching resource can somehow take place without any impact of quality of provision. This is fuelled by a wider discourse about ‘getting more for less’ by redefining what efficiency means, for example through the ideas that public-private partnerships and PFI’s somehow square this circle. Inadvertently it also leaves a gap in financial provision of HE that market-oriented actions seek to fulfil. Like managers parents may also feel that there is no choice – no option other than to hope that their children can do well enough in their studies to get a get paid career. Again we see that irony in consumer culture more generally – that the way of living that promises freedom through choice can enslave the mind into assuming that it is only a rejection of the market that is not a choice. As Edwards (2000) explains, people are using market expectations to their appraisals of public service – judging it by the same personal tastes and preferences we come to know as consumers. The market offers the appearance of endless opportunity to express one’s agency – but that means choice is always contained and constrained within the market.
What is to be done about Marketisation of Higher education?
Now that we have held everybody except the university mascot liable for the marketisation of HE (although perhaps if mascots are replaced with logos we could even find fault here) we want to finish with some tentative responses to the question ‘so what can be done?’
Stakeholders – all stakeholders – in universities owe it to the importance and longevity of the sector to reflect critically on the issues the contributors to this book have raised as well as other academic and popular discourses on higher education. The first thing we might hope to have more of is reflection on the changes taking place. More specifically we should consider not just what we intend to achieve when introducing or passively accepting market-oriented processes, but also 1. the possibility that the methods we use to accomplish something might change the nature of what is accomplished, and 2. the nature of the many unintended consequences of introducing marketing practice and discourse into the HE sector.
From this there are some issues that we feel are critical calls to action. The first is greater transparency. HE remains primarily publicly funded. It belongs to us all as citizens. As such we should tolerate nothing less than a default position of openness about all aspects of its operation; a case should need to be made for any deviations from this principle. This should apply throughout, from how and why individual institutions use funds for widening participation, to appointments and promotions, to criteria being used to assess students’ work, through to the commercial agreements entered into for on campus retail outlets. What would the public make of such information on how their tax money is spent we wonder? How can we do more to highlight the social value of the University and to get society more broadly to take an interest in University affairs?
The second call to action is for academics to restate the intricate relationship that exists between scholarly research and good teaching and learning practice. This might also mean that institutional decisions are made with the same concern and thought that is applied to academic research and careful pedagogy. Quality must not be jettisoned for other institutional priorities – since pedagogically speaking there can be no other greater priority for a university. Put another way, there is no point in growth, or in more ‘market share’ of applicants, or brighter cafeterias, or higher leaguer table positions, unless such things transparently feed into enhancing this ‘Archimedean like’ point.
And the final call we make is for academics and those who ‘manage’ them to at least leave themselves open to being transformed by their practice. Most ambitiously this could be the radical vision of student and university as painted by Neary and Hagyard in chapter seventeen, and we recommend that such visions are given air. Why shouldn’t universities routinely consider alternative and radical structures and roles for themselves? There might be other exciting models that emerge if we think and talk and act. This is a reminder that the marketisation of higher education and the transformation of students into consumers is not inevitable, but needs to be constantly enacted, often thoughtlessly. That also makes it surprisingly fragile. Through care in everyday practice we can make of expanded higher education what we want it to be by reimagining the value of independence and critical distance from the concerns of governments and markets.
To forcefully illustrate many of the issues we have raised about the environment in which HE is now operating, we collected news items about the sector in the four days during the writing of this conclusion. A small selection helps us finish this chapter.
Universities are not factories for workers. Government website
The “commodification” of higher education is here to stay. Senior Academic Manager
Reject the short-termist slash and burn strategy of Government policy in HE. UCU
Students exchange money for knowledge, it’s that simple. Blog about university life
Academics raising ethical concerns about their intuitions links to China told to ‘get real’ if you don’t like it get out. Comment responding to article in Times Higher
Professor PB, who had a quarter of a century’s experience in teaching and exam marking, was taken to task for failing too many students taking his course, today he won his case against his university who will now have to pay substantial damages. Telegraph
University students should be treated as consumers and given ‘value for money’ and universities should give them a guide to how much they could earn once they have their qualifications. Secretary of State responsible for HE
See our top tips on how to climb the league tables Times Higher
We even have to pay to run the SPSS system for analysing the data we have collected, what next? Student Facebook entry
To describe the sector as diverse is to miss the real point here; what we are witnessing is a period of ambiguity, of marginality and change. We suggest an alternative way of understanding the situation HE faces to the dogma of ‘change management’ that limits the scope of dialogue by assuming inevitability. These circumstances of uncertainty and readjustment fit well with Victor Turner’s concept of social drama: a space of transformation between phases of separation and reincorporation (1983). It is in such temporal conditions that seminal opportunities arise for us all. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, (Gardiner 2002) what is so sparkling, so fragrant, so intoxicating, as possibility?
Bauman, Z. (2008). Exit Homo Politicus, Enter Homo Consumens, in Soper, K. and Trentmann, F. (Eds.). Citizenship and Consumption. Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter 9
Canclini, G. (2001) Consumers and citizens: Globalization and multicultural conflicts. Translated and with an Introduction by George Yudice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Edwards, T. (2000) Contradictions of Consumption. Concepts, practices and politics in consumer society. Buckinghamshire, Open University Press.
Fromm, E. (1976) To Have or To Be? New York: Harper & Row.
Gardiner, P. (2002) Kierkegaard. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Molesworth, M. Nixon, E. and Scullion, R., (2009) Having, Being and Higher Education: the marketisation of the university and the transformation of the student into consumer. Teaching in Higher Education. Volume 14 (3)
Turner, V. (1983) Liminal to liminoid, in play, flow, and ritual: an essay in comparative symbology. Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
Tags: higher education, marketization