For Sale: Higher Education

Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and I’m sure if he were alive today he would assert that the unexamined debt is not worth paying, especially in regards to higher education. In December 2010 it was decided that university tuition fees would treble, precipitating a larger proportion of students and parents to think harder about the utility of a university degree and whether the financial cost of it is equal to, or higher than the benefits it yields.

Higher education has become a homogeneous and ubiquitous product now readily available to the majority, with many students blindly following the college-into-university trajectory that the increased tuition fees have now caused many to question. This homogeneous product, like any smart phone or new gizmo, has the same benefits to all regardless of the customer. A degree is a signifier of worth, a passport to employment and an endower of life skills and thus a high price must be paid. However, one can shop around for the best deal; why pay £9,000 at Leeds University when you can pay €1,713 at the University of Amsterdam, which is also classed in the top 1% of universities worldwide.

This was the very question posed by the opportunists behind the Student World Fair at the Emirates Stadium in London set up in September 2011 where prospective students could shop around for the best deal in higher education abroad, comparing the specs of each university in relation to the other- what are the facilities like? How many of your students obtain employment six months after graduation? Does it come with a 5 megapixel camera? Van Dijk of the BI Norwegian Business School highlights the more commercial aspects of higher education asserting “there are better career opportunities and better value for money opportunities outside the UK,” illustrating that it would be prudent for student consumers to seek more bang for their buck elsewhere, stating that there are some absolute ‘bargains’ to be found in studying abroad.

Universities are businesses and once the cap on fees was removed, most universities clamoured to charge the maximum amount, fearing usurpation by competitors, lest they priced their product under £9,000 and depreciated its value. Their diminished prestige in the marketplace would attract fewer students, ultimately leading to fewer customers and less revenue. League tables also perpetuate the notion of student consumerism, rating each aspect of one institution-employability, staff to student ratio and student satisfaction against one another. By paying X amount for this degree at our university, these are the benefits that can accrue to you, just look how many students are satisfied with our product! Institutions that were once bastions of education and self- improvement are scrutinised like the iPhone 5.

On the obliteration of funding for the non-lucrative humanities, the NUS commented that “Universities across the country that do not meet the government’s arbitrary definition of usefulness, but nonetheless transform and enrich our economy and society, are to be brutalised.” Oxford University has even called for £90m to save academic jobs in light of ruthless cuts to the arts subjects, cuts that were made with a commercial impetus behind them.

The revelation in December that 24 universities in the UK are reducing their tuition fees, incentivised by a shot at 20,000 full-time undergraduate places, further augmented the notion that universities are now commercially-driven. Dropping fees to below £7,500 are the universities’ way of maintaining a competitive edge in the marketplace of higher education. This ‘sale’ in university degrees and the entire commercialisation of higher education has rendered degrees meaningless. The ubiquity of them is such that they are now the minimum requirement for many jobs and the subsequent marketing of degrees as a means to an employable end has devalued them and morphed them from a rigorous, academic attainment to a marketed rite of passage for British teenagers.

Settit Beyene

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One Comment
  • Matthew Styles
    8 April 2012 at 10:20
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    Interesting that an article hasn’t been published on this before now actually, as the HE Bill “shelved” recently has been a big focus point and citation in the marketisation of HE debate.

    I’d like to start by saying that a degree isn’t “a passport to employment and an endower of life skills”, in fact, quite the contrary. Labour had a target of getting 50% of school-leavers to attend university, and they got quite close. Hundreds of thousands of students graduate from university each year, and typical graduate job numbers do not even come close.

    For a graduate to obtain a job upon graduation, they need to stand out in some way – not only the institution they studied at, the subject they read, but their employability skills. These skills come from work experience, from volunteering, from extra-curricular activities and getting involved in things outside of their degree. We really need to emphasise this to our students, and give them all the support and advice we can to help them promote what they’ve done during their time at university.

    I feel that universities’ decisions to charge £9,000 are being misrepresented in this article. Sure, universities are businesses in many ways, but the decisions to charge £9k fees were in many cases made on the basis that the government cut the institution’s teaching and learning budgets by up to 80% – that loss of income needed to be recovered and Home/EU undergraduate tuition fees was the obvious place to do this. Of course, I’m against tuition fees outright, but the issue isn’t as black-and-white as, “We can make more money; let’s do that.”, otherwise we’d see £40k international student fees (as we know, many students would pay)

    League tables are horrible, but the one useful purpose they serve is to encourage institutions to improve the student experience. One major factor in national league tables is the results of the National Student Survey (NSS), conducted nationally where all final-year UG students are eligible to take part. It asks questions on things like feedback and assessment, teaching, facilities and resources, and the overall student satisfaction, One of the most impressive ways for an institution to move up national league tables is to get better NSS results and to do this, the university needs to look at what students really want. Universities have always looked towards self-improvement, but not so long ago this was mainly concentrated on research rather than teaching. I’d like to think that both are very important! Sure, league tables are misleading and redundant at the best of times, but without them, where would the incentive be for universities to better the student experience?

    Article issues aside, I do completely agree that we are moving to a HE market, and it’s a very sad time. It’s evident in tuition fees, in government statements, and in the Higher Education Bill. As a national student movement, we should really be doing much more to protest against these ludicrous proposals and legislation.

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