Disrupted universities. The promise of marketisation

IMG_4067Higher education moved from the ‘ivory tower’ to the marketplace since… let’s say the year 2000. To understand this landmark we just have to look at some important moments that changed profoundly universities across the world. For example, we need to remember that 1995 marks an important event for higher education: the adoption in Marrakesh of the General Agreement of Trades and Services (GATS). Here, for the first time, according to GATS, one of the sectors that are covered by trade agreements refers to educational services. As any other service, it was stated that various modes of trade of educational services are now regulated by GATS: the cross-border supply, consumption abroad, commercial presence and the presence of natural persons. These stand translated into various forms of transactions: campus branches, international students and so on.

The conclusions of the ‘Millennium Round’ of multilateral trade negotiations – organised by the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, at the end of 1999 – moved higher education decisively into the market, as a tradeable service, as any other commodity. Of course, as a commodity, it was important to put in place some measures that customers can use to evaluate what they buy. So the era of global rankings started with the publication of the first results of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings called ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ (hereafter referred to as ARWU) in 2003. Customers were able to find which universities sell the best product and where is best to invest to get a ‘good education’. The market forces pushed to create an avalanche of international rankings of all sorts for higher education (from measuring the output of research to ‘graduate employability’, however that is measured).

With the ‘Millennium Round’, the high priests of the market decisively won higher education!

The promise of GATS and WTO was generous – the organisation acknowledged the importance of education to foster ‘economic growth, personal and social development, as well as reducing inequality’. It defined the ‘market structure’ of the sector and – in the background note by the WTO Secretariat from 23 September 1998 – we  find clear suggestions of measures that can lead to success, such as the idea ‘to increase competition and encourage investor and corporate participation in the education sector‘ (S/C/W/49 Page 6). Corporatisation of education held the promise of an efficient sector, where efficiency and efficacy rule the game and academics provide a quality service for happy customers. Education was aligned to the logic of neoliberalism in philosophy, structure and organisation.

The set of promises was great, and many decision-makers genuinely believed in a dogma stating that the free market in higher education and treating education as a commodity is the key to an enlightened future for all.

Strangely, this recent history is rarely mentioned, if ever! University rankings are presented with the assumption that they were around since the University of Bologna was established. If we look back we have to admit that all indicators reflect that at the time when these promises were made youth unemployment was lower than it is today. Moreover, inequality was significantly lower, graduate unemployment and underemployment, NEETs, social problems and risks were at very low rates in comparison with those reported in 2015.

Higher education experience now results of managerialism. We have to remember that in selling the case for turning education into a commodity, WTO was praising the United Kingdom for moving ‘away from public financing and toward greater market responsiveness, coupled with an increasing openness to alternative financing mechanisms, has led universities in new directions, balancing academic quality with business management‘ (WTO, Background Note by the Secretariat, p. 5).

The WTO note makes important to observe what The Guardian reports in 2016, that – in the UK – academics find the ethos of universities under managerialism so unbearable that we currently record a significant rise of mental health problems: “Mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system“. Academic staff is also too scared to report these problems, as another report reveals. The culture of fear, distrust and the pressure to ‘make the plan’ is a long way from a place where new ideas emerge, where culture and civilisation would find its strongest defenders!

Students are now valued customers and commodity, so this group must be much better now, right? Wrong! After decades of trickle-down economics, market-oriented theories,  and liberalisation of trade in education we see students even more stressed than their professors in our truly disrupted universities. BBC reports that a rising number of stressed students seek help now.

As already mentioned, graduate unemployment and underemployment are continuously rising and student debt in most OECD countries is going over limits of sustainability (for individuals, institutions and economies). Bloomberg Business just published a recent analysis (available here), revealing that ‘The world’s middle classes are getting poorer‘ and ‘Things are even worse for young people‘! Things vastly different than GATS anticipated even though Thatcherism and neoliberalism are now forcefully applied by zealots (who often have no idea what is neoliberalism or what is the logical structure of their actions!).

Universities are placed under so much pressure to present a better picture to lure new ‘customers’ are report better profits that many institutions stand now accused of manipulating data on graduate employment. Responsibility was trampled over by those marching for the glory of the markets.

The core of academic life is also lost, somewhere in some excel sheets. Academic freedom stands now muddled so that in reality there has not much left of it. An editorial in Nature is right to observe that ‘Governments have neglected democracy and academic freedom in their push to make universities more businesslike‘. Not that we don’t live in a time that screams the need for democratic values, civility and humanity. The price of this perspective is much more obvious now. Extremists, fanatics and loss of humanity place any discussion about profits as  marginal, trivial and silly in the context of what can be lost. It should also become more evident for universities that placing profit above all other aims ultimately stifles all passion and creativity. But ‘astute administrators’ make clear that only if there is some time left for some wine and cheese we can talk a bit about that thing called ‘academic freedom’ and whatever else those hippies would like to waste their time on.

Politicians, administrators and citizens should pay more attention and we should all be much more careful with what universities are doing, and what they become. Especially when it is visible that barbarians are beyond the gates, and freedom, civility and culture are so less safe than they look!

In fairness, we have to admit that something is working well in universities. For example, in the often cited system of higher education in the UK (as WTO people couldn’t hide their love for Thatcher’s legacy) we find in recent media reports that the average income for vice-chancellors in the last five years is constantly rising, well over 10%! Take into account the fact that their average income never declined and you have the perfect image of what is good news for universities today! Too bad that this is not yet trickling down on academics and students…

It is the time to admit the failure of the market as a guiding principle of organisation for higher education: students don’t find jobs as the promise goes, academics are more stressed and less engaged than ever before and a large set of indicators reveal that the sector is in a dysfunctional state.

The simple fact is that education works fundamentally different from selling cars, music or newspapers. Fifteen years after the GATS and WTO agreements, administrators may finally need to stop plagiarising so badly the corporate world, accept the evidence and start anew. The list of promises from 1999 compared to most results in 2016 makes a sad and worrying reading!

GATS managed to profoundly disrupt – in the unglorified sense of the word, by drastically altering or destroying the structure of – universities across the word. It is important to re-think now what is a university and what makes it different from any other profit-making endeavour. Rebuilding the sector can start from here. We can involve students and academics in decisions in reality, rather than mimicking it. We can stop counting meaningless stuff and sanction mediocrity, rather than celebrating it.

Most importantly, we have to take a take a good look at what stands at the core of universitas and academia and change with courage and wisdom. Or we can duplicate Trump-like universities for the future and make them all ‘efficient’ for a nice profit. If this is the choice… happy hunger games to all!

  1. Well. Then GATS is the all to blaim . I really expect other comments .
    Why high quality colleges were not effected .
    There are 2.500 4-year colleges now . Only 200 or so are good enough to go for a degree. 10 million undergraduate students all . 50 million BA degree holders out of which 25 million are underemployed .
    I blaim Federal Loans . They have loaned even to worst colleges’ students .


  2. Thank you Stefan for sharing your ideas. I completely agree with your intelligent analysis of Universities. I want to add that the culture of fear, distrust, and pressure starts when pupils enter primary education.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That would account for the smiles, running round, chatting etc that seems to be taking place in the primary playgrounds I see – at all ages


      • There is a proverb that says that all that glitters is not gold. Here we are speaking about the education system. Apart from all the smiling, chatting, and running round, are the students being given the opportunity to develop their full potential? Are they helped to develop critical thinking? Are teachers allowed to express their professional judgement?


        • ¨Apart from all …. ” reminds me of ¨Apart from .. aqueducts, sanitation, etc” as described at 1 minute in on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9foi342LXQE – Monty Python – What have the romans ever done for us.

          But to answer your question(s) Yes, because my wife runs the school. And optimistically there are other like minded HeadTeachers.

          Good luck to you


  3. Peter said:

    This is an uphill battle, to be sure. I am grateful that at the Chinese high school where I work, students going abroad this year applied to upwards of 300 different colleges and universities, albeit mostly in the States. In any case, they are for the most part now looking beyond the brand, though this admittedly remains very important to them and their families in many cases.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a senior administrator (not faculty) at a large North American research intensive university, i’m intrigued by the entire article, however i’d like to narrow down to the notion of academic freedom (af). I would argue that this will be one of (if not ‘the’) defining catalyst for the evolution of higher ed. As such, we should all be considering the ramifications of change. I would ask you, Stefan, if you can envision a more granular definition, and in particular, separation between research and teaching. I fully concur with af in the research realm, however I struggle to envision af in the teaching realm, particularly when learning technologies (and accompanying learning analytics) are factored in. Do you believe that complete af for all university instructors/professors in the classrooms (f2f and virtual) is in the best interest of our students, our institutions and society in general?


    • Rob, thanks for your comment. Your question – in the typical pseudo-business jargon adopted by (too many) administrators in higher education – is leading to a certain answer you want to hear. I will disappoint you: I don’t believe that “complete academic freedom” (whatever that means!) is ever required by scholars or institutions of higher education. If you’ll read my previous post you can understand what I mean by academic freedom, how this is misunderstood today and why the entire focus on micro-aggressions stifles academic freedom. Now, if you want a definition (why do you have to use ‘granular’ there?), one is provided by what the Yale University Committee on Freedom of Expression indicated since 1975 as the main function of a university:
      “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that a university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.“
      The “unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable” stay far from living realities of academia after decades of glorious marketisation! An example of the current wisdom (or lack thereof) is presented here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/ubc-centenary-celebrations-marred-by-scandal-continued-controversy/article27447690/
      I note your interest in other things that are placed together in a somehow incoherent puzzle: learning analytics, new technologies, academic freedom, relationship between teaching and research etc… Every single part of that requires a chapter, not a line. So I hope that you’ll enjoy reading my new book, when ready.