Refusing to recognise market is of no use

April 24, 2014

Simon Marginson writes interestingly as ever (“There’s still no such thing as a higher education market”, Opinion, 10 April), here arguing that UK higher education does not (and probably should not or perhaps even cannot) operate in a marketplace – despite supposedly misguided political and ideological attempts to make it do so since the early 1980s.

But a cursory glance at the history of higher education would show that the commercialisation of higher education was a fact of life long before the advent of the Thatcher years. Indeed, the norm has been a tangled web of evolution driven by the interaction of state, society and institutional autonomy – as well as being fuelled by public and private funding.

And now – after an interlude of some 60 years (roughly from 1945 to the Browne report and the subsequent related White Paper hiking tuition fees and “putting students at the heart of the university”) during which the system became increasingly steered politically from the centre and financially underwritten by government and state – this tangled web is once again re-exerting its dominance. Of course, however powerful this driver of change, it will not result in a shift to a totally free market. As is in fact true of the general provision of goods and services within an advanced capitalist economy, it will be a marketplace regulated by state action that, if governments are wise, will take cognisance of those interests embedded in higher education and above all those institutions that provide the products – teaching, research, civic engagement, or whatever.

As we analyse in our forthcoming Reshaping the University: The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education (Oxford University Press, June 2014), the market is already upon us, but its mode of operation is still taking shape in terms of the role of the regulatory state in ensuring effective legal protection for the fee-paying student-consumer and also in determining the mechanisms or agencies for operating the regulated market.

Perhaps Marginson, and others, would do better to consider how best to achieve an efficient market rather than to deny its ever-greater presence in the 21st-century delivery of higher education.

David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper
Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies
New College, Oxford

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