Leader: The best that money can't buy

The market has its limits. Whether it is good or bad depends on context, and all must be alert to ideological creep in the academy

May 31, 2012

There was a time when to the man on the street, "markets" probably evoked images of striped awnings in provincial towns or Del and Rodders-style wheeler-dealers. But after the turmoil of recent years, the ramifications of failure in the financial markets or of market economics are stamped indelibly on the global consciousness.

The ubiquity of market ideology is explored in a new book by Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University, which suggests that it has self-seeded like Japanese knotweed and taken over in areas of life where it is quite inappropriate. What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets argues that we have moved from having a market economy to a "market society". The point is illustrated with extraordinary examples, from a woman who offered her forehead as advertising space to the trade in life insurance policies taken out by Aids sufferers.

Sandel is not anti-market but he makes a compelling case for a rethink of the way we view markets and what they are for.

He says that in the right circumstances, admission to a top university could be bought and sold without rendering the degrees worthless - but whether this means that it should happen is another question.

"Higher education not only equips students for remunerative jobs; it also embodies certain ideals - the pursuit of truth, the promotion of scholarly and scientific excellence, the advancement of humane teaching and learning, the cultivation of civic virtue," he writes.

Allowing financial concerns to rule all else "runs the risk of distorting these ends and corrupting the norms that give universities their reason for being".

For others, this danger is present not only in the explicit buying and selling of places but in the broader issue of increasing "competition" in higher education.

In our cover feature this week, Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, says that this mantra risks doing "massive damage...for in the end competition is always about private profit or gain".

It should be kept in mind that universities already compete for students, donations, research funding and industry contracts, and competition is a vital part of the scholarly process. Whether it is good or bad comes down to context and outcomes.

Reflecting on this last week, one vice-chancellor cited as an example the differences between grades awarded in Scottish highers and A levels. In Scotland there is just one examination board, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, whereas in England there are several, offering competition and choice. Yet whereas in Scotland grades have remained relatively stable, in England the proportion of top grades has increased relentlessly.

While this could be down to rising standards, why haven't Scottish students improved year on year, too? Is it because they are less clever or taught less well, or is it because the competition between exam boards in England has had the unintended consequence of driving grade inflation?

Some degree of marketisation is surely here to stay in higher education. But it is vital that all stay alive to the dangers of ideological creep and the potential for market-driven absurdities found in other areas of modern life.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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