Market in HE a threat

March 9, 2007

Universities worldwide are losing sight of their “social, cultural and intellectual objectives” as commercial forces turn them into simple producers of “commodities”, according to a new report, writes Tony Tysome.

The report, published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, warns that the rise of commercial forces is threatening the developing world, where demand for higher education risks being exploited.

The report says that universities in relatively rich countries are rushing to offer degree courses in the developing world, and that governments in developing countries are keen to welcome them to help meet demand.

After decades of underinvestment, there is renewed interest in strengthening higher education in poor countries because it is seen as a key element in building a knowledge economy, said report author Rajani Naidoo, director of studies for the business administration in higher education management PhD at Bath University. But most of these nations do not have the resources or staff to develop their own systems.

“The burgeoning demand combined with fragile systems of higher education… pose attractive market prospects for potential exporters,” says the report, HE as a Global Community .
But it goes on to say: “Commercial forces worldwide have propelled universities to function less as institutions, with social, cultural and indeed intellectual objectives, and more as producers of commodities that can be sold in the international marketplace.”

The report argues that government policies in developed nations, as well as the activities of transnational organisations such as the World Trade Organisation with its General Agreement on Trade in Services, have helped accelerate the trend towards transforming higher education into a global commodity.

There are some potential benefits in this trend, the report says. Foreign universities may help soak up growing demand for places on courses that cannot be met locally and could help governments respond more quickly to short-term industry needs.

But commercialisation could lead foreign universities to develop “irrelevant or inappropriate” low-cost “off-the-shelf” courses for developing countries and to underinvest in supporting facilities such as libraries.

Another danger is that, if foreign universities are unregulated, they will focus on providing courses in disciplines that are profitable and cheap to run, such as business studies. This can cause local universities to lose students on their own courses in these areas, starving them of the income they need to cross-subsidise and maintain more expensive disciplines such as medicine.

There is an urgent need for further research into this area to protect developing countries from “the most corrosive forms of commodification” in higher education, the report concludes.

Sally Hunt, University and College Union joint general secretary, said: “Universities need to step back from viewing opportunities abroad, and at home, in purely financial terms and refocus on the purpose of higher education. There is likely to be little long-term gain in the rush to set up shop overseas just because it appears a profitable exercise. In fact the international reputation of UK higher education could be at risk from fly-by night operations.”

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