The Marketisation of Education: The Untold Story


Photo taken by Louis Sidwell, Nov. 2010

As the government plans to cut higher education funding whilst pushing up the cost of tuition fees, many are left reeling in the wake of the Liberal Democrats’ complete U-Turn on their own manifesto and the worries for the future of higher education itself.

The coalition proposes to cut teaching grants by 80%  and to raise tuition fees by nearly triple the current asking price as a “replacement” for the massive cut in education funding. This will leave Universities with around a 40% drop in their guaranteed incomes. But what will be the real repercussions of these proposals?

It essentially means that the funding of university teaching will shift from the taxpayer to the student, thus creating a free market in Uni courses.

The government is removing teaching grants for all subjects save for “STEM subjects” – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – meaning that the funding will have to come from the students themselves – hence the astronomic rise in tuition fee prices.

But what this effectively means, is that a free market is opened up with the more popular courses receiving more funding, and more popular Universities receiving more funding via applicants’ tuition fees than others. And remember – popularity does not always mean quality.

The Tories are continuing on with their ethos – never mind their pre-election claims to be the “party for change”, actions speak louder than words.

Our Universities are being sold to the highest bidders, us. The courses that do not offer the best value-for-money or the greatest prospects upon graduating will receive the least applicants, the least funding, and eventually will have to be shut down. The same can be said for institutions themselves, Universities struggling to find enough students will also close down. The decision to let Universities charge market-style prices is also flawed. What will happen is the majority of courses will cost around the same price as the tuition fee cap for fear of seeming inadequate or useless; if an institution charges a lower price for a course then it will be viewed as being low-quality, coupled with the fact that the institution itself will receive less funding per course. Advocates of free market policies will state that this is “fair” – the “best” courses/institutions will receive the most applicants, therefore the most funding, and will flourish. Meanwhile the “worst” courses/institutions will receive less applicants, less funding, and will struggle or even be closed down. However, those with common sense will soon realise that things are not so straight-forward, and the argument is flawed.

Education should not be marketised. Funding should not come from “market users” but should be funded by the State – provided that you hold the belief that education is not a privilege, it is a right.

This is Disaster Capitalism: “Orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events… the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities” (Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine, pg.6). In New Orleans, the disaster was a sweeping flood that destroyed homes, schools, communities. In the UK, today, the “catastophic event” is the monumentous deficit, used as an “exciting market opportunity”, as an excuse to turn education into a free market.

In New Orleans, instead of rebuilding and improving the existing public school system, the government instead saw an “exciting market opportunity” and turned much of the public system into private institutions, many run at a profit. Families were provided with “vouchers” to be spent at private institutions, subsidised by the State only in part. The auctioning of New Orleans’ school system took place “with military speed and precision”, contrasting significantly with the “glacial pace” at which the electricity grid was brought back online, for example. In the wake of the disaster, free market enthusiasts had succeeded in marketising the public schools system. Disaster Capitalism.

Our disaster was the recession, our catastrophe is the deficit – used as an excuse to cut funding by the State and instead put the funding into the hands of “consumers”, “market users”, or as they have traditionally been referred to as, “students.”

Education is to be changed completely. No longer will it be about advancing knowledge, gaining life experience, exploring options, benefitting the individual. Now it will be an economic commodity, with the only questions asked being: “Can I afford to take this debt on?”, “Will it provide me with value-for-money?”, etc. If these proposals are allowed to go through, our higher education system will be transformed into a free market. Instead of “vouchers” (a la New Orleans), students will be given up to £9,000 to “spend” at an institution, on a course of their choice. But students will have a great burden on their shoulders, for they should be made aware of just how much of an impact their choice will make. As the “consumers”, students will be able to make-or-break Universities and courses purely based on their choices.

Universities will also face difficult decisions. The institutions will have to forge a balance between high-cost, high demand courses and high-cost, low demand courses. Universities with lower funding and lower levels of applicants will face harsher choices and may need to cut corners or even remove courses altogether. On the extreme end of the scale, some Universities may even be forced to close if funding levels get to low.

Again, free market advocates will state that this is “fair”. No doubt the Tories, with their history of Privatisation, will relish a free market education system, where the “strong” flourish and the “weak” perish: Survival of the fittest. Capitalism at it’s rawest.

However, there are many that state that the proposals are not “fair”, they are not “progressive” in a positive way, despite the repeated rhetoric from the coalition. Some even claim the proposals are “ideological” in nature, supportive of Naomi Klein’s description of “Disaster Capitalism”.

Is education a right, or a commodity? Should it be for the benefit of the individual, or the economy? Should education be funded by the state, or by “consumers”? Should the taxpayer fund education or should students take on the burden, with Universities having their main source of income coming from the loans that are given to students? It is becomingly increasingly difficult for MP’s to argue that these proposals are “fair”, however. The Liberal Democrats appear to be split in different directions, despite Nick Clegg’s calls to support the raise in fees. We shall find out this week what their decision will be.

** Update 08/12/10: Just came across an article written by a tax expert, on the subject of student loans. The expert, Richard Murphy, disagrees with student loans and describes how we can “afford to educate”. His reasons for student loans existing are listed below, and the article can be found here.

In that case what are students loans about?

1) Trying to artificially cut the tax bill;

2) Trying to privatise education;

3) Ensuring students are so laden with debt they must become good, compliant employees – i.e. this is about suppressing the freedom to innovate, promote enterprise and to oppose by imposing oppressive burdens on those in work in the future;

4) Creating new securitisable income streams that can be traded;

5) Maintaining the position of an elite, traditionally afforded to them by access to education  and now to be afforded by their freedom from debt. After all, for those who pay £30,000 or year to send their children to private school sixth forms – and that’s what it costs – university education is a snip. Their kids can come out debt free – whilst others have to then bow and scrape to them when in their employment to ensure they can repay their debts.

Is this therefore a deliberate construct by an elite designed to oppress? I think so. I can’t see another explanation. And I think they believe it will work for them, very nicely. That’s why students are right to oppose this.

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One response to “The Marketisation of Education: The Untold Story

  1. Pingback: Cameron to let bankers off with extortionate bonuses « negativentropy

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