Marketplace muddle

March 22, 1996

Among Sir Ron Dearing's initial thoughts on the university of the 21st century are that it will have a "sharper commercial edge" and will encourage the development of postgraduate students' "entrepreneurial talents". It is clear that he sees the university as a business.

There seems to be a consensus that we are left with no alternative to shifting the cost on to the customers. There is no questioning the claims that money is limited and that direct taxes should continue to fall. But we see free university education as an entitlement because it draws freely on the accumulated knowledge experience of the world. The politicians have chosen Sir Ron because he shares their market assumptions.

The Dearing committee will be looking for ideas in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, which have gone furthest in commercialising education and shifting the funding on to students. US research suggests that the market approach is at the expense of both economy and society and that commercialising the universities is a failing project.

Universities in the US, Canada and Mexico are turning into profit-making businesses and are developing financial links with research parks and incubators. Tax breaks for multinationals have encouraged them to downsize their research divisions and transfer high-risk R & D to universities. Government legislation and a squeeze on funds have forced the universities to develop technology transfer, spin-off companies and become more commercial. The universities' shift from their real task of providing education to commodity production has a logical conclusion. In the words of education historian David Noble: "Universities are getting out of the education business like US Steel got out of the steel business."

The development of a "sharper commercial edge" is justified by claims that university-business relationships will generate a flow of private money into universities. In fact, in the US the reverse is happening. Taxpayers' money is being diverted through the universities into private companies on and off campus. The universities use public money, students' fees, endowments and loans as capital, and staff and students as labour to produce commodities for the market. They repay loans by increasing fees and cutting back staff and provision.

Staff and student-owned campus companies are used as cheap and "slave" labour by multinationals. Postgraduate students hone their "entrepreneurial skills" during 30 to 40-hour working weeks, leaving little time for study. The result is experience not of lifelong learning but of lifelong work. There is growing resistance to commercialisation on and off campus. Students are fighting against fee increases, cutbacks and corporate-orientated research. But a general recognition, endorsed by Robbins in 1963, has persisted that public education was not a profit-making business. This relatively low-key phase of commercialisation focused on the organisation of the university rather than the work (or labour) process and the product.

Since the 1970s the focus has, however, turned increasingly to the labour process and its "product".

The political truce on higher education is indicative of the politicians' unease in attempting to combine satisfaction of social needs with the profit-orientated market.

The solution would be to remove education from the market, place it under democratic control and restore its funding from taxation. The problem is, would the next government have the courage to start the process by returning to policies of full employment? Or will this have to be accomplished, as in the past, by extra-parliamentary movement?

Pat Brady Geraldine Thorpe Senior lecturers in social and economic studies at London Guildhall University.

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