Vanishing points of view

Universities abandoned to untrammelled market forces risk being robbed of their diversity, with unpredictable results

August 28, 2014

Say what you like about Margaret Thatcher, she knew how to craft a good sound bite.

One of the most memorable was when an interviewer asked her whether she was a good butcher. “No, I’m not a good butcher, but I’ve had to learn to carve the joint,” she replied.

The line, delivered with a practised but wholly unconvincing look of concern, was specifically about cutting ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle (“the people expect a new look”, she explained). But her point seems increasingly relevant in higher education.

Writing this week, David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US, describes a trend among Ivy League students for a gimlet-eyed focus on “return on investment”. More and more of them are choosing to major in a handful of courses that lead to the best-paid jobs – perfectly natural, he suggests, when the cost of study might amount to a quarter of a million dollars.

There is no sign of a coherent or comprehensive plan to preserve the breadth and depth of higher education as a whole

In fact, Blanchflower suggests, this focus on the rate of return is not even as straightforward as a desire to pay off graduate debt or earn back an inheritance spent on college fees, since scholarship students enjoying a “free ride” are “especially” likely to be motivated by earning power. It is the huge sticker price, and what that says about the value of the “product”, that is to blame.

“Dartmouth, along with the other Ivies, ends up with most of its students crammed into three majors…because they want to be a doctor, a lawyer or to work on Wall Street,” he writes.

The result, according to Blanchflower, is that departmental staffing is rapidly getting out of whack: “some now have more academics than students taking majors”.

The possible solutions he suggests range from controversial options such as reducing academic numbers in less popular subjects and expanding in growth areas, to using staff in less popular but nonetheless vital fields to provide “contextual” teaching to students majoring in his triumvirate of money-spinning disciplines.

This broad approach to the undergraduate curriculum is already integral to the liberal arts tradition, but Blanchflower fears that England may face similar pressures to the US without a system that allows such flexibility. It is certainly the case that universities here have begun to rationalise their portfolios (most notably London Metropolitan University, which has cut about 70 per cent of its courses), and there’s evidence of specific disciplines facing cuts directly related to lack of demand.

The obvious example is modern languages, in which acceptances fell by a fifth from 2011-12 to 2013-14, subjects dropped by the University of Salford last year to “secure the future” of the institution. What’s clear is that universities at the mercy of market forces will wield the axe whenever they deem it necessary, whatever the long-term implications for the disciplines involved. Yet while there are specific campaigns to reverse the decline in some fields, there is no sign of a coherent or comprehensive plan to preserve the breadth and depth of higher education as a whole.

Another of Thatcher’s famous quotes is that “economics are the method; the object is to change the soul”. She was talking about getting people to make money: the ideology driving higher education reform seems to be operating on much the same principle.

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