Higher Education and the Market

Miriam E. David assesses a sober appraisal of how global pressures are affecting higher education

December 16, 2010

How higher education should be funded is a dilemma, and particularly now as the sector digests the sweeping changes proposed in Lord Browne's report on funding and the fallout of the Comprehensive Spending Review. In recent months, the debate over whether undergraduate student fees should be raised, or whether a graduate tax would be a more appropriate way forward in a situation of fiscal restraint, has become an important public and policy debate, frequently discussed in various media in ways that were unheard of only a decade ago.

Yet the debate has been narrowly focused on questions about undergraduate students studying for first degrees, and almost invariably full-time traditional students. Moreover, media debate tends to centre on elite Russell Group universities and whether they can continue to compete on the global stage and dominate international league tables. The "brain drain", too, has reared its ugly head again, despite the fact that global mass higher education seems here to stay, according to all the pundits. The advantages of being part of an international market for global talent across the arts and humanities, social sciences, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics is often drowned out in a jingoistic clamour for increased UK government funding for the Russell Group alone.

Roger Brown's edited collection is a very sober and useful antidote to these rather hysterical and sometimes absurdly histrionic debates about maintaining and increasing inequalities between UK universities and other higher education. What Brown sets out to do is to provide a balanced account of the role of the market in global and local higher education, and then consider its impact on various aspects of university activity such as system structure, resources and funding in domestic higher education systems around undergraduate students and academic research and scholarship.

The focus is therefore relatively narrow and limited to detailed consideration of an array of impacts on student education. These are very clearly and cogently summarised in his three introductory chapters, and a tabular representation of the issues entitled "Market and non-market models of higher education systems" sets the parameters of his discussion. It is his attempt at conceptual clarity around the meanings and interpretations of different market and quasi-market forms for efficient quality systems of higher education. He then provides an extended discussion of the concept of impact, which interestingly is not reflexively related to the planned research excellence framework, but concerns the role of the market in higher education systems in emerging global knowledge economies and societies. The social, however, gets rather short shrift.

In addition to Brown's erudite introductory chapters, there are nine country case studies, all from what is now called "the global north", and mainly from Europe. The general tenor of these invited chapters is to present detailed analyses of the workings of complex local markets for undergraduate students.

Scholars have been invited to contribute essays on Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Poland, Portugal, the US and the UK. William Locke provides an interesting discussion of what he calls "false economy", looking at the role of reputational analysis in the creation of hierarchies in UK higher education. All the case studies reveal the complexities of the workings of domestic knowledge economies and the expansion of global mass higher education. Curiously, however, one gets little feel for the nuances of their cultural, ethnic and social differences.

Brown concludes the book with a chapter intriguingly entitled "Taming the Beast", in which he considers "how market and non-market approaches might be combined to secure a balanced higher education system". An ideological commitment to ensuring the workings of a neoliberal knowledge economy, in which higher education plays a major part, becomes crystal clear, underscored by the title of the book itself with its unequivocal reference to "the market". There is therefore no critique of the contradictory tendencies in domestic, local or global systems between diversity and equity in recruitment, retention or degree results even just for undergraduate students.

Debates about fair access and widening participation for women and socio-economically disadvantaged students have become subservient to the need for a balanced market. Indeed, the market itself may be "the beast", whatever that means for students' or academics' identities, lives and experiences.

Higher Education and the Market

Edited by Roger Brown

Routledge, 234pp, £80.00 and £24.99

ISBN 9780415991681 and 91698

Published July 2010

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