Marketisation in the UK

Do ya feel lucky about the potential range of educational choices?

As Chad’s posts over the years has all too often shown, one consequence of introducing a market for Higher Education is that sometimes providers fail.

Of course, this also partly depends on the market in question: the US has always had a mixed economy, whereas here in the UK things have been rather different. In particular, the state has been the predominant actor for the whole of the post-war period, and even now continues to hold pretty much all the cards, albeit at arm’s length.

That’s meant that until now, the collapse of providers has not been allowed to happen, with mergers or emergency support hiding the issue.

But that’s now changing.

As a recent report in The Guardian highlighted, several institutions are facing big drops in student numbers, just at the time that the government appears to be ready to let some failures occur, mostly to underline their resolve to allow for changing patterns of provision.

The basic shift in government funding has been from institutions to students: money now follows the latter. That’s meant a series of waves of change in recruitment, as universities competed for both quality (needed for league table performances) and quantity (needed to pay the bills). Most recently, we’ve seen a big rise in the number of unconditional offers – students getting places before their final school exam results – as a way of locking them into an institution.

As in any market, students get attracted by reputations, league tables and the kind of offers available: they become consumers. and that produces institutions that become uncompetitive.

I’ll pass on the opportunity to rehash the student-as-consumer discussion, not least because I guess you already have views on this (and Chad and I have both written about some applied consequences of late), but moving back out to the macro-level, it’s evident that government wishes to see a dynamic set of providers.

Reading the article, I will admit to feeling rather conflicted, not least because I work in one of the universities that has benefited from this dynamic situation. However, I’ve seen enough – in my university and in others – to know that everything is contingent and that things can change very quickly.

The upshot is that we all have to be much more aware of our surroundings and of the conditionalities upon which we work.

More importantly, it should remind us that education is a collective enterprise: we are strongest and most effective when we work together. That’s true for research, teaching and everything else. Indeed, without dialogue and collaboration, academia does not work at all.

Something to chew on, especially in the coming months, as British universities face another major challenge to their pension schemes.