examkapaIt is the week of clearing, when silly-season news is briefly full of stories of would-be university students who didn’t get the grades they needed for their offered places scrambling to get a place somewhere else. Looking at it close-up, the only credible conclusion, now that university education is so expensive, is that the system is designed to benefit the universities far more than the students.

In turn, this represents a whole privileging of the universities and their trade associations, that also promotes the wholesale financialisation of the higher education system. Which is odd, because the previous non-financialised system delivered world-class outcomes at less than world-class costs, and there’s little guarantee that that the financialised system will do the same. Indeed, the evidence so far is that giving universities too much financial autonomy turns them into rogue institutions, if the record of London University is anything to go by, here, here, and here.

A £30,000 decision

Clearing first. In contrast to the careful consideration of the UCAS application process – a carefully crafted personal statement, five university choices, whittled to two after offers, sometimes with site visits and so on – clearing is a phone call, or several, on the day you get your results. You are advised to have your personal statement to hand because the university you’re calling is unlikely to have seen it. Some schools advise their pupils to get in at 7.30 a.m. on the morning of A-level results so they can start the clearing processes as soon as results are released at 8 a.m. It’s not a good way for a teenager to make a £30,000+ decision. Indeed, it manages to replicate several of the conditions that are known to lead to poor decision-making.

What do the universities get? Why, they get their places filled, and funds released through the student fees scheme. Even if some students do get good outcomes through clearing, the imbalance of power, and outcomes, is obvious and blatant. Indeed, on Thursday morning, when A-levels came out, the whole event seemed to be captured best by a breathless if anonymous “expert” in The Times [£££].

One expert said that the clearing process would be like a football transfer window, with universities seeking to steal a march on rivals by signing up the best available talent.

No notion of public good

Perhaps this system worked for everyone when university was free and there were fewer students. Not any more. The problem at the heart of all of this is that the marketisation of our universities doesn’t seem to have any notion of public good or educational good anywhere within it. Under this model, students stop being partners in their own education and become consumers instead. But education isn’t a “service” that sits well within a “consumer” frame, for all sorts of reasons. In fact, this is a category error.

I wrote about this narrow view of education in a recent article published by the APF’s Compass newsletter (the article is on my page at Academia:

The institutions seem to have heard the discourse about the market more quickly than the students. Vice-Chancellors award themselves lavish salaries, regardless of the performance of their institutions … they have outsourced services even though it is more expensive than not doing so; and they have clamped down on dissent, sometimes colluding with police.

Marketisation solved a short-run funding problem – a problem that was created largely by the Treasury’s blinkered model – but created a longer-term problem, encouraging in the university sector exactly the same behaviour that has generally been so destructive for British-based businesses. (Aditya Chakrabortty, at The Guardian, has been particularly good on all of this.)

Perverse outcomes

But the effects of marketisation on the universities sector are perverse. They produce worse academic outcomes, not better, as Howard Hotson spelt out in a magisterial article in the London Review of Books.

The marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries.

All of this, of course, has to be seen in the wider context of the neoliberal shift from value-creating economies based on production to predatory economies based on financial manipulation.

Positional goods

And they produce a third problem as well. They turn education into a ‘positional good‘. Hotson again:

So, imagine what would happen in England if the fee cap were removed, a real market introduced, and universities allowed to pursue their own economic interests without regard for anything else … Oxford and Cambridge would jack up their tuition fees dramatically … , first of all to recoup the roughly £8000 of their own resources they currently invest in educating each student every year on top of what they receive through fees, government grants and research income. Rich parents would relish the opportunity to drive fees even higher, beyond the reach of less wealthy parents of more able children.

In other words, access is reduced, and by extension, so is social mobility. (And these things are already under pressure). [Update: And see also Will Hutton’s column here.] Which, of course, is why neoliberals like it so much. This is one of the reasons why the half-baked proposals floated recently to lift the fees ceiling again are so pernicious.

Policy capture and politics

From a policy point of view, the combination of the Treasury’s narrow financial view and the Department of Business, Industry, and Skills’ panic about funding the universities has created a situation where policy has effectively been captured by the universities and their trade groups. As Adam Smith famously pointed out, this tends not to end well for the rest of us.

What’s been lost in this process is both the long-term interests of students and of the public. Which suggests to me that public policy, which is supposed to balance competing needs and interests in an equitable way, has got lost in the mix. Fortunately the whole issue of student fees and the way students are treated by universities is one of the few that has energised British politics in the last few years, wrecking Nick Clegg’s reputation along the way. When policy fails, politics needs to step in.

The image at the top of the post is by Whitecirius/Wikimedia, and is used with thanks.