So, it looks as though Labour will include a commitment to abolish tuition fees in their forthcoming election manifesto. The Daily Mail is furious with such a 70s Trotskyite policy, however, a number of academics have commended Labour for committing to scrap fees which, they argue, have had a devastating impact on students and universities. This post is not an economic argument for the abolition of tuition fees but rather a brief insight into the current neoliberal HE landscape and the commodification of knowledge...
The higher education sector has experienced vast changes in the past twenty years. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 began the journey from a publicly funded system to a market driven model, where education is now dominated by growing influence of business, rising tuition fees and the commodification of knowledge (Stromquist, 2002; Giroux, 2014). Indeed, in a knowledge-based economy, knowledge is sold like any other product or service and where the state’s role in providing education has been diminished as individuals are expected to self-fund their post-compulsory educational needs (Stromquist, 2002; Davies and Bansel, 2007; Giroux, 2014). This commodification of knowledge also has led to many universities becoming Edu-Factories churning out neoliberal subjects rather than critical politically engaged citizens.
Since their introduction in 1998, tuition fees have increased from £1,000 to £9,000; the large hike being a result of the Browne Review (BIS, 2010) which recommended increasing student choice and removing the cap on university fees. The document, written by former BP chief executive Lord Browne, made a number of neoliberal recommendations which has led to further marketisation of higher education, most notably universities being placed into league tables and judged on every aspect of their provision. Defendants of marketisation would argue that increased competition results in greater choice and opportunities for students, however, this does come at a cost as students are increasingly becoming consumers of education with some believing that because they’ve paid for a qualification they should be automatically awarded one (Light et al., 2009; Biggs and Tann, 2011). The increase of tuition fees has also impacted upon students’ expectations of employability with some believing that they are paying for the guarantee of a postgraduate job (Bates and Kaye, 2014). However the reality is that many graduates are forced to take on low-paid/ skilled jobs while simultaneously being crippled by debt (Allen, 2015).
HE marketisation was further entrenched with the publication of the coalition government’s White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (BIS, 2011), which put greater emphasis on turning university education into a marketplace commodity with profit being placed at the heart of the system. According to the White Paper (BIS, 2011, p. 25) the main purpose of the reforms was to ‘improve the quality of students’ academic experience and to increase their educational gain’ yet it was viewed by many as another way of permitting universities to increase their fees and revenue. Moreover, it allowed part-time students to take out loans to fund their courses, suggesting the increase would widen access for many disadvantaged young people, however, it has actually led to the number of part-time students falling by 56% in five years and universities having to scrap many of their part-time courses (Fazackerly, 2017). On the other hand, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of full-time students due to a drive to diversify student recruitment and especially increase the number of overseas students.
From the 1990s to 2016 the full-time participation rates of young people (aged 18 – 30) attending university has increased from around 15% to 48% (Light et al., 2009; Biggs and Tann, 2011; Bates and Kaye, 2014; DfE, 2016). This, it is argued, has created a system which is far less elitist and accessible to the masses than ever before (Stromquist, 2002; Light et al., 2009). This is no bad thing. However, the significant increase has also resulted in greater diversification of the student population whose backgrounds and academic ability is presenting many institutions with teaching-related challenges (Stromquist, 2002; Light et al., 2009; Biggs and Tann, 2011). One of the main reasons behind this increase has been the drive to recruit more international students who provide universities with an important source of revenue but also bring with them needs which require specialist support (Biggs and Tann, 2011; Pokorny and Warren, 2016). There has also been a drive to recruit students from disadvantaged background with the government insisting it is to support mobility, though the money they provide to the knowledge economy should not be ignored. The rising numbers and increased diversity of students has led many higher education teachers becoming overwhelmed, under-resourced and struggling to meet the demands of their role (Light et al., 2009; Pokorny and Warren, 2016). The publication of Success as a Knowledge Economy (BIS, 2016) puts even greater emphasis on giving students more choice to purchase the best knowledge that is on offer. These huge financial investments have led to an increase in students' expectations and increasing pressure on universities to offer excellent tradable products; knowledge and teaching. The growing pressures with student diversification have also led to an increase in quality assurance of teaching and learning within and across universities.
One of the consequences of government policy has been a shift in responsibility of teaching from individuals to institutions. Here, they argue, universities are now responsible for devising and implementing policies to ensure that teaching is of the highest standard and students get the excellent education for which they have paid for. According to Light et al., (2009, p. 8) the focus on teaching accountability is ‘a natural manifestation of the discourse of excellence’. This natural profession has led to the development of the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) which judges universities on the quality of their provision with funding to be linked to the quality of teaching for the first time (BIS, 2016). Universities will now be judged on teaching quality, learning environment and student gains with providers being awarded either bronze, silver or gold for their provision. According to the government, this is to ensure that students are able to access the excellence in higher education, however, it has led some critics to suggest that it will be used by higher education institutions to raise fees as they market themselves as offering a superior product to their competitors (McGhee, 2016). Either way, this move represents a seismic shift in teaching and learning and may very well place extra pressure on teachers as their employers strive for the much-lauded gold status.
Recent reforms to the higher education sector has led to widespread changes which have resulted in the creation of a corporate culture where knowledge is hugely profitable. Labour are offering a alternative narrative to the knowledge economy which could change the lives of many young people in this country and possibly dramatically change the future of education...
Allen, K. (2015). 'UK graduates are eating degrees in lower-skilled jobs', The Guardian. Published on 19th August 2015.
Bates, E. and Kaye, L. (2014). ‘‘I’d be expecting caviar in lectures’’: the impact
of the new fee regime on undergraduate students’ expectations of Higher Education’, Higher Education, Vol. 67, No. 5, pp. 655 – 673.
Biggs, J. and Tann, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. (4th Edition). London: McGraw-Hill.
Davies, B. and Bansel, P. (2007), ‘Neoliberalism and education’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 247-259.
Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) (2011). Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education.
Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) (2011). Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System.
Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) (2016). Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice.
Department for Education (DfE) (2016). Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 2006/ 2007 – 2015/ 2016.
Fazackerly, A. (2017). ‘Part-time student numbers collapse by 56% in five years’, The Guardian. Published on 2nd May 2017.
Light, G., Cox, R. and Calkins, S. (2009). Learning and Teaching in Higher Education; The Reflective Practitioner. London: SAGE.
McGhee, P. (2016). ‘Will the Teaching Excellence Framework be a licence for universities to raise fees?’, The Guardian. Published on 22nd August 2016.
Pokorny, H. and Digby, W. (2016). Enhancing Teaching Practice in Higher Education. London: SAGE.
Stromquist, N. (2002). Education in a Globalised World: The Connectivity of Economic Power, Technology and Knowledge. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.