Market competition myths

October 21, 2010

I was surprised to read that Julian Beer of the University of Plymouth believes that the existing funding method has encouraged homogeneity and that a market would drive more institutions to specialise ("Fee market selection: find a niche or go extinct", 7 October).

That would perhaps be the case if higher education were a market like others. But the evidence - summarised in my recent book Higher Education and the Market - is that it is not.

Instead of competing through innovation and the identification of market segments, the great majority of institutions compete through emulation, putting their efforts into activities that will enhance their prestige rather than meeting the needs of students or other client groups. Moreover, many of these activities have only a tangential relationship to education, the classic case being the competition between a number of institutions in the American Southwest to build the highest climbing wall.

This in turn reflects the difficulty of finding agreed universal measures of educational quality, the societal role of higher education as an allocator of status, and the power of the faculty in many of the most prestigious institutions.

Genuine institutional diversity requires a careful blend of competition, state action and institutional responsibility. It is unlikely to be furthered by wholesale price liberalisation or increased privatisation.

Roger Brown, Professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University.

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