Market competition and mass participation ‘reduces diversity’

Expanding university enrolment across the world has resulted in universities ‘imitating each other’, says leading scholar

July 11, 2017
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Copy that: ‘Why is it that, when free to determine their own strategies, higher education institutions prefer to imitate each other rather than innovate in response to the consumer-student?’ says Simon Marginson

Increased market competition and the growth in participation in higher education has led to “imitation” behaviour and the narrowing of university missions around the world, according to a leading scholar.

In a study, Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, argues that the combination of mass participation and enhanced competition “in neoliberal quasi-markets” around the world has failed to create the hoped-for innovation and diversity.

Instead, there has been a decline in the diversity of institutional types and “increased convergence of missions through isomorphistic imitation”, says Professor Marginson, as witnessed in the rise of large multidisciplinary and multipurpose institutions, and growing “internal diversity” within these institutions.

“Formal market competition heightens the tendency to strategic imitation not innovation,” he says.

But high participation rates and market competition have also led to an increase in the diversity of universities in terms of quality and reputation as well as some growth in the role of private higher education institutions, he states.

The growth in for-profit higher education and diverse online provision “suggests great diversity in the distance between institutional types”, he adds.

Professor Marginson presented the paper, “Horizontal diversity in higher education systems: does the growth of participation enhance or diminish it?”, at a seminar hosted by the IoE’s Centre for Global Higher Education on 6 July. The research draws on empirical evidence of the outcomes of high participation higher education systems and market competition across the world, as well as trends in global higher education.

Professor Marginson rejects the “market diversity hypothesis”, which argues that growth of participation leads to greater diversity, provided that the government allows market competition to take place freely.

He says that this argument first emerged in the US but the existing diversity of America’s universities developed “long before” the country became a “high participation higher education system” and market competition was introduced.

“Why is it that, when free to determine their own strategies, higher education institutions prefer to imitate each other rather than innovate in response to the consumer-student? Because higher education is an experience, good students can only judge its quality after they have been enrolled,” Professor Marginson says.

He adds that this means that universities are “driven not by consumers, but by competition with each other for institutional reputation and prestige, and for the best students, faculty, research contracts and endowments”.

Therefore, “competition based on reputation is naturally conservative, leading to the minimisation of risky innovations”, Professor Marginson concludes.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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