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Preparation for life or a commodity that can be bought? The Marketisation of Universities

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In this article Paula Stone, a Senior Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, offers her thoughts about the influence of marketisation of the ‘University Business’. 

supermarket trolliesAt a recent speech given at a large, modern university, the Vice Chancellor opened with … “We are a business with an annual turnover of £120 million – it has to operate as a business, but it is a university business”.

So what is the “business” of the university and what is the driver for the business? It is with regret that I would like to suggest that the biggest influence on what is going on in the University is being driven by neo-liberal ideology of marketisation.

The earliest universities promised to give, through diligent inquiry and learning, access to ideas about man, of being, and of man’s relationship with the universe (Barnett, 2011). Nowadays, most modern universities are more practical, procedural and performative in character (Eraut, 1994) driven by a much higher level of accountability for public funding, in which research money is expected to bring with it social and economic development for the UK through the Research Assessment Exercise, and greater accountability for students as customers (Ball, 2008).  Over the past 40 years, the culture of the University has been transformed by the institutionalisation of the policies of marketisation (Brown, 2011) in which there is competition between institutions for students and research funding. I would argue that this discourse has led to an instrumental view of knowledge and intellectual culture in which knowledge and education are seen as “intellectual products and services…….[which] can be exported for high-value return” (Ball, 2008, p19). Thus, universities and their “knowledge distribution power” (Ball, 2008, p20) are becoming increasingly important to the economic development of a nation; this is articulated in national education policy. The recent Browne Report (2010) explicitly stated that higher education is like any other product or service and must contribute to the economic and social development of the UK.

Of course, this commodification of knowledge has led to a shift in the ways universities operate; traditional academic exercises and practices have been gradually displaced by visible, quantifiable and instrumentally driven set of processes including increased quality control, auditing, ranking of performance, quantifying the student experience and constructing of league tables (Furedi, 2011).  And whilst universities have always had responsibility for teaching and learning, and research and scholarship, competition for students and funding has meant that universities have had to diversify to other activity areas that may not traditionally be considered as part of higher education (Barnett, 2011).  These activities, for example consultancy, have had a huge impact on the internal functioning of institutions, with an increase in the proportion of resources devoted to management and administration.

Isn’t there a risk that competition is distracting universities from their core business of teaching and learning “which transforms lives, strengthens the economy, and enriches society” (Higher Education Funding Council For England (HEFCE)  p.2) and long term research projects?

Certainly, opponents of marketisation, most notably the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) made up of some of Britain’s most high-profile public intellectuals, would agree. They argue that the purposes of education have been collapsed into a single overriding emphasis on policy making for economic competiveness and there has been an increasing neglect or side-lining of the social and moral purposes of education.

For me, certainly, the most worrying aspect of the commodification of higher education is the recasting of the relationship between academics and students along the model of a service provider and customer. In addition academics are seen as producers of research which focuses on topics of commercial value. Thus, universities are encouraged to teach and research not what they think is intrinsically worthwhile but what is likely to be financially most profitable.

When academics lament the “managerial” and “instrumental” view of education that dominates today, they risk being accused of an ivory tower arrogance that disregards their obligations to the public…but this is not the case at all.

All most academics want to do is preserve the integrity of the purpose of the higher education as set out by the Robbins report over 50 years ago:

  • Provide instruction in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour
  • Ensure what is taught should be taught in such a way as to promote the general powers of the mind
  • Maintain the search for truth is an essential function of institutions of higher education and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery.
  • Ensure higher education institutions have an important role to play in the general cultural life of the communities in which they are situated (p.7)

Of course, advocates of marketisation argue that this process is necessary to turn universities into more responsive, flexible, efficient and, most importantly, more attentive to the needs, interests and views of external stakeholders, especially students and prospective students (Brown, 2011). In terms of social justice these aims are surely admirable. However, in my opinion, we should not underestimate the influence of marketisation as a means through which governments promote clearly defined political policies.  Thus, it is also important to understand that the marketisation of higher education is as much a political and ideological process as an economic phenomenon.


Ball, S.J. (2008) The Education debate. Bristol, UK. The Policy Press

Barnett, R. (2011) Being a University. Oxon, UK. Routledge

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence. London, UK Falmer Press

Brown, R. (2011) ‘The march of the market’, In Molesworth, M., Scullion, R., &Nixon, E. (Eds) (2011). The marketisation of Higher education and the student as consumer. Oxon, UK. Routledge pp.11-24

Furedi, F. (2011) ‘Introduction to the marketisation of higher education and the student as consumer’. In Molesworth, M., Scullion, R., &Nixon, E. (Eds) (2011). The marketisation of Higher education and the student as consumer. Oxon, UK. Routledge pp.1-8

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One Response to Preparation for life or a commodity that can be bought? The Marketisation of Universities

  1. Stephen Scoffham Monday, 20 April 2015 at 11:00 #

    I couldn’t agree with you more Paula, You may remember Jonathan Barnes and myself wrote a short piece on values in December in which we argued that we need ‘to seek to continually establish and affirm the values which underpin our work’. Accountability has a legitimate place in education but accountability to market forces needs to be set within a larger (and much more worthwhile) context. .