Higher education for sale

The short term effects of the 2010 vote to increase in university fees cap in the UK.

A mass of disillusioned students, let down by the promises of a certain Nick Clegg, marched with determination towards higher education. The rise in 2012 fees did not even dramatically deter students, unaware of alternatives to university. Irrational signatures on contracts with student finance, signing away uncertainty for another 3-4 years.

The higher fees may have fast-tracked the shift from university focused on education to a consumerist approach by students. A minimum of £18k in debt over the three years, with interest creeping at 3% above rpi. Students are demanding their money’s worth.

An underlying trend towards consumerism of education may have occured without the fee rise, due to various shifts in political, economic and social factors, which have tended towards consumerist ideals.

Universities have developed into a role of the stepping stone between school and employment, with a degree being the best tool to find employment, (until the most recent financial crisis.) An institution that previously represented a pursuit of further knowledge, simultaneously threw a signal to employers that solidified a generalisation that the graduates were the intelligent and ambitious employees they wanted.

The resulting correlation was seen by the student population, who then realised that the degree could put them at an advantage to finding a ‘graduate’ job. The more degrees there are, the harder it becomes to differentiate individuals, which as a result, dampens the signal.

With a rising population and a rise in degree certificates, the government wanted to turn to the free market, to restore the equilibrium. The increase in fee cap was not a perfect implementation of the free market model, the cap in place to prevent social mobility from declining, by ensuring a maximum outlay of the government through its offer of student loans.

Universities separated a little, with some at the lower end of £6000pa and the majority up at £9000pa and a few in between. A rise in student bursaries from universities attempted to alleviate the increase in fees.

The fee rise has also been met with a greater attempt by some universities to recruit their students, beyond researching excelling. The ‘student experience’ has been marketised through glossy prospectuses and energetic campus (sales) teams, promising three years of unforgettable experience, and some learning on the side.

The transition away from knowledge, towards an educational package has demanded more from many academics, both in good ways and bad. Universities run as mini-enterprises have demanded more flexible employees, they now also have to heavily consider student welfare and personal development, moving further beyond simple student engagement and discussion. They also have to face the students, who as consumers, can (not all do) follow a dictum of the consumer is always right.

A university degree is a massive expense, and the expense is so large that there is tendency towards viewing education as an exchange of money. This has been exacerbated by recruitment campaigns, selling promises of high career prospects and an education tailored to you. The power shift resulting has changed the view of higher education.

If money buys an education, then there is a dangerous corollary that students are consumers. Consumers, as a generalised cohort, are non-satiable, forever asking for more value-for-money, which is one side of the market forces. University education supply is fixed in the short run, due to maximum capacity and immobility of labour (lecturers/teachers), in the same way that agricultural produce supply is fixed for the year by the amount of seeds sown and then develop. The higher education sector has been hit by forces of the free market and university has responded by developing towards a market. The competition for consumers, as promised, has occured. Complete with development of branding and reputation of universities to differentiate themselves, prices (fees) as a positive signal of quality and promises that feed into the consumer that education can be tailored to suit their own needs. If school-leaver schemes continue to develop, there could be competitive pressures on the higher educational sector as a whole.

In the medium to long term, further changes can be implemented, since factors limiting the change of universities are also variable. Evening lectures to suit nocturnal students, industry placements found by universities, celebrity academics could all develop as a result of the commodification of a university degree.

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