Sneaking privatisation: the changing face of university


In an era of increasingly privatised higher education, a student equals money for a university. To be precise, £44,000. Yet, although professor’s wages, research, and general upkeep are costly outflows, the prospect of increasing mass learning to bring in new students at a fraction of the expense has transformed the contemporary university into a profit-generating juggernaut. 

In this profit maximisation manoeuvre, universities have made serious changes. Many have undergone huge programme expansion, shifting to meet student interest with degrees like sports management and interior design. Others, on the other hand, have decided to grow into more hard sciences and technology- related sectors — ones with strong research interest and open to large-scale financing awards. But there are pedagogical losers in this programme expansion, the primary one of which is the humanities. Courses like philosophy have suffered increasing knocks due to a combination of declining student interest and a lack of financing. 

Universities’ business decisions have changed even more as a result of this commercialisation process. Chancellors are spending ever-increasing sums on legal, branding, and marketing at universities in order to urgently engage young people’s attention. Furthermore, the institutions’ architectural refurbishments have been extensive, with the purpose of producing newer, flashier, and more appealing learning halls to demonstrate to students and benefactors alike that their future university is on the cutting edge of research and teaching. 

Allowing education to become a private good would be a grave mistake for the country

Finally, the increase in university fees, from £3,000 to £9,000 in just over ten years, has made funding university a greater issue for many students. With these now largely inaccessible fees many rely on student finance, creating one of the largest spending factors in today’s Government and deepening sovereign debt. 

Yet as a University College Union report in 2013 suggests, this trend of privatisation is only gathering momentum. They reveal an insensitivity of party politics to the issues surrounding the privatisation of university, stating that there is a cross party consensus in the UK that public funding for student loans should decrease. Instead, it is widely agreed that tuition fees should be paid privately through commercial lenders, donations, and outright payments. As policy moves towards this model, students will have greater customer control over degree choice, privately funded education will be the norm and there will be a great expansion of for-profit university which will emulate the financial burden of American education on US households. 

However, the effects of emulating an American approach to education are odious. There will restricted access to higher education for lower-income families, widening the inequality of education gap that we already battle with between state and fee-paying schools. Moreover, offering private loans to vast numbers of credible and uncredible lenders to cover tuition fees will put instability into the loan market. But, most importantly, the higher education
system will be degraded into an increasing number of low-quality private institutions.

Economic and social expense

Given that these alarming changes are already on the way, are we still calling tertiary education a public good? Or has it slipped into becoming a private one? With the Government clamouring for privately paid fees and universities imposing their branding messaging on potential students, it looks that higher education will become a competitive and discriminatory entity. 

Yet allowing education to become a private good would be a grave mistake for the country. Public goods are essential for the positive externalities they impart on society. Higher education benefits include increased tax revenues from higher earnings, quicker economic growth, more social cohesion, and a lower strain on public services such as health and crime prevention, to mention a few. 

Taking these calculations into consideration it becomes clear that there is a real economic and social expense to the privatisation of universities. This appears to outweigh the benefits. So hopefully, when an MP or a university chancellor reflects on the future of education and weighs these benefits against a medium-term income rise, their position may shift. 


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