Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

The Marketisation of British Universities: Neoliberalism and the Privatisation of Knowledge

We Are Students

There’s a joke in British politics that New Labour, the rebranding of the mainstream left led by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s, quickly morphed into neo-liberalism. Speak with a drawl and New Labour and neo liberal even sound similar. Voted in by the British electorate in 1997 on the promise of “education, education, education,” Blair’s government quickly introduced tuition fees across all UK universities. Twenty years later, as Stefan Collini claims, “Universities are now forced to regard each other as competitors in the same market, where their flourishing will be dependent on the accuracy with which they pitch their products to appeal to their particular niche of consumers.”1 As George Monbiot observes, “So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology.”2

In recent months, students and lecturers at British universities have not only recognised the ways in which higher education has been hijacked by an increasingly aggressive neo-liberal ideology, but they have also undertaken industrial action, culminating in fourteen days of strike action across sixty one universities. Academics stood in picket lines in the thousands in response to the imposition of new changes to the pension scheme, which would leave academics £10, 000 /$14, 000 a year worse off in retirement. Amidst the furor generated by the proposed pension cuts, a wider picture has emerged: students and staff are deeply concerned about what one academic has called “the slow death of public education.”3 As academics across the UK wait anxiously to see how much pay will be deducted after their legal participation in strikes up and down the country, news has emerged of the enormous salaries earned by British university senior management. While academic salaries have not risen in line with inflation, vice-chancellors in UK universities have benefited from a 227% increase in financial benefits since 2010. According to one analysis, “in 2010 total vice-chancellors benefits amounted to £633,999/ $900, 000, by 2016 this had increased to £2,071,393/ $2, 900, 000.”4

In recent months, commentators have pointed out the ways in which vice-chancellors’ exorbitant salary and benefits increasingly mirror those of industry fat cats; in fact, many vice chancellors are paid considerably more than the Prime Minister. More worryingly, academics are observing the relentless marketisation of British higher education. As Thomas Doherty, author of the recently published book The New Treason of the Intellectuals argues, “the sector leadership has been utterly and damnably complicit with a governmental ideology that has expressly and dangerously politicised the very principle of education as such, re-designing it to serve and endorse the ideology of market-fundamentalism.”5 As undergraduate tuition fees rise, education becomes increasingly driven by a neo-liberal agenda encouraged by a Conservative government that chirrups about meritocracy even as it ensures that university is prohibitively expensive for students from poor socio-economic backgrounds. “The real logic of this,” Doherty explains, “is that it legitimises a structure in which the University becomes an institution designed to exacerbate social and wealth inequality among individuals. Personal greed—perhaps now ever clearer in the salary hikes of many VCs—becomes the sole motivational force that drives the search for knowledge.”

Since the cries of “education, education, education,” successive Conservative governments have striven to commodify university education. In 2010, a Tory cabinet decided to all but remove public funding for university teaching, which would instead be paid for by higher student fees, resulting in the creation of a competitive university market. “The result has been a change in the character and above all the ethos of universities,” Collini observes, a comment echoed by a recent report for the Higher Education Policy Institute, which concludes that the UK government’s “drive towards competition and marketisation” clearly “puts at risk the fundamental purpose of universities to serve the public interest.”6

In April 2018, members of the University and College Union voted 64% to 36% to suspend strikes after the Universities UK—an advocacy organisation for universities in the United Kingdom—agreed to set up a “joint expert panel” to review pensions. As Des Freedman points out, however, the recent industrial action has far-reaching consequences: “The dispute has changed the union: thousands have joined up, moribund branches have revived, and a process of radical political education has taken place.”7 British academics, thousands of whom picketed during the strikes, are angry at the ways that university education has been marketised; how league tables drive educational policies, and how cultural capital has been replaced by the privatisation of knowledge. “Many colleagues have now woken up to the fact that their sector leadership has been complicit in the fundamental betrayal of sound educational principles,” Doherty observes. “While there may eventually be some agreed resolution to the conflict over pensions, I think it is clear that there is an ongoing war over the future of our institutions, one that is a central element in the current menaces that threaten the sustainability of the social fabric, and of the planet.”

While the fate of British academics’ pensions remains unclear, there is little doubt that many British academics are resisting the commodification of their profession. Like many of us, I’ve been thinking about the role of education over the last few weeks; I’ve been thinking seriously about whether I want to continue in a workplace environment that promotes—at least from up high—the marketization of higher education, where, as we have learned recently, there is a move to rank universities in the UK according to how much graduate students earn. Like many of my colleagues, I chose not to work for a business because I don’t share the values of neoliberalism, and yet we find ourselves clinging to a vocation that is increasingly run as a global business. In “A Talk to Teachers,” first published in 1963, James Baldwin reminds us that “any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’” As Baldwin explains, “the purpose of education” has nothing to do with league tables, student surveys, or the branding of universities. Rather, it “is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions… To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.” The paradox, as Baldwin points out in a passage that remains vitally relevant, is that “no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”8

1 Stefan Collini. “The Marketisation of Higher Education.” Fabian Society (22 February, 2018):
2 George Monbiot. “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” Guardian (15 April, 2016):
3 Becky Gardiner. “Why I’m a striking lecturer: I want to stop the slow death of public education.” Guardian (12 March, 2018): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/12/striking-lecturer-slow-death-public-education
4 Ned Simmons. “Vice-Chancellors Accused Of Pocketing An ‘Eye-Watering’ 227% Increase In Financial Benefits Since 2010.” Huffington Post (2 February, 2018): https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/vice-chancellors-have-pocketed-an-eye-watering-227-increase-in-financial-benefits-since-2010_uk_5a96befce4b0e6a523039e82
5 I am grateful to Professor Doherty for providing some insight into the wider issues surrounding the strike. The quotations in this article are from an email interview.
The New Treason of the Intellectuals
Can the University Survive? recently published by Manchester University Press in July 2018: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526132741/
6 Stefan Collini. “The Marketisation of Higher Education.” Fabian Society (22 February, 2018):
https://fabians.org.uk/the-marketisation-of-higher-education/; John Morgan, ‘“Drive to Marketisation’ Puts Purpose of Universities ‘at risk’,” Times Higher Education (13 October, 2016): https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/drive-marketisation-puts-purpose-universities-risk
7 Des Freedman. “Universities ending the strikes is not a climbdown – the fight goes on.” Guardian (16 April, 2018): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/16/university-pensions-strikes-union-campaign
8 James Baldwin. “A Talk to Teachers” (1963): http://richgibson.com/talktoteachers.htm

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