The market has no place in education

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One piece of news which nobody at Durham can have missed since the formation of the Coalition Government is the furore surrounding the increase in tuition fees. The policy was so incendiary that there was even a protest against them here in Durham, in spite of our reputation as being one of the more conservative and less politically active universities in the country (although admittedly most of the protesters were local sixth form students, and we also played host to a small simultaneous ‘pro-unlimited-fees’ rally).

Even though the increase in tuition fees has been passed into law, the debate has continued apace, with the words ‘progressive’ and ‘social-mobility’ being  claimed by both camps. That is of course an important discussion, but what I find worrying is how indicative this legislation is of a growing culture of the commoditisation and commercialisation of education, and an application of the principles of competition to the education sector in a bid to raise standards.

This is based on the notion that (at the risk of sounding simple), in a market, the consumers will pick the best products offered at the best prices, and leave overpriced or undesirable products on the proverbial shelves.

Fantastic: standards will go up as only the best courses and universities will be able to attract students, who under the new system will pay the entire cost of their courses in most cases, meaning that those courses which cannot attract students will not be offered and those institutions that cannot bring in enough fees will go bust.

But, and I do not mean to patronise anyone here, what position are seventeen year olds (the consumers of this system) in to make judgements about the quality of a university? Because this is what the whole system of introducing competition into the education sector as a means of raising educational standards is predicated upon: the ability of educational ‘customers’ to perceive the best educational ‘products’ and choose these over lesser products. The problem is that the quality of education is such an abstract phenomenon that no ‘consumer’ of educational products is really in a position to assess it.

In the USA perhaps the most evident effect of the importance of consumer choice on the university system is the huge expenditure on campus landscaping and the provision of luxury sports and accommodation facilities that it has entailed: to the ‘customer’ a perfectly manicured lawn and an opulent en suite are clearly attractive, but have nothing to do with the quality of education provided.

A similar system exists in Sweden where schools compete for the attention of students by offering free laptops, with students choosing between schools on the grounds of what brand they can offer.

Given this inability to evaluate the quality of a university, prospective students rely instead on league tables. Surely this is a way of giving students the information about which universities and courses are the best?

Well yes, to an extent (they certainly give a fair idea of which universities are the best and which the absolute worst, but was Durham really a worse university than 16 others last year, to suddenly be better than 9 of them by the next year (all the while being the 3rd best university according to someone else…)), but the main aspects of the league tables for universities are determined by the national student survey, which still relies on subjective student impressions rather than any measure of the quality of the university as an educational establishment.

But even where grade attainment is taken into account, as in the league tables for schools, further problems arise.

There are two incentives for schools in order to appear a better school to its prospective customers: firstly to ‘teach to the test’, that is to concentrate so completely on how to excel in the prerequisite examinations that actually the notion of an education is brushed aside in favour of a system churning out exam-passing automata, or alternatively to choose the easiest exams for their students and to usher students away from difficult subjects into ones which guarantee good marks for the school, but as universities now seem to blacklist subjects they deem insufficiently academic, this often does nothing for the student.

The whole system of marketising secondary education only provides an incentive for the reduction in difficulty of exams and for the narrowing of educational focus, and does nothing to increase educational standards.

Further problems with this application of competition specifically to the school system arise in terms of providing schoolchildren with a choice of schools: allowing them to vote with their feet and leave failing schools.

For this choice to be meaningful a huge surplus of schoolplaces has to be funded and provided for children not to take up. Otherwise, even the worst schools will still ‘attract customers’, because children have to go to school.

In this situation not only would consumer choice do nothing to improve educational standards, but could also contribute to social segregation as, to invoke a cliché, the sharpest elbowed middle class parents would be the likeliest to go out of their way to ensure their children places at the best schools, leaving children of parents with less time or resolve to play the system to take up places in worse schools.

Why, then, is this policy so eagerly applied by politicians to all aspects of the education sector? It must partly be the dogmatic adherence to the notion of the market as a force for good in every aspect of human life. But I would also suggest that it is in fact born out of a desire to either actually improve educational standards, or merely to be seen to, without committing to spending greater sums of public money.

If you really want to improve educational standards, whether it is in a rural primary school or one of the best universities in the world, the formula is simple: employ more teachers, make classes smaller.

Consumer choice is not an inherently bad thing, but for competition to improve educational standards the consumer needs to be able to clearly identify which institutions provide a better education than others, and this simply cannot be done with an education in the way it can with a television or a car.

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