The Decline of Public Debates About Higher Education in Britain

A remarkable decline is occurring in public debates about the changing nature of higher education in Britain. Just a few years ago, critical voices could still speak through mainstream media to highlight the dangers of the quickly accelerating commercialisation of academia. These commentators, by and large, have now been pushed to the margins of public debate. The sort of critical statements that was common and acceptable only ten years ago is now increasingly ignored or belittled. At the same time, a remarkable linguistic shift has taken place, as public debates and media reports about university life are more and more reliant on the vocabulary of the business world.

This is quite evident in The Guardian’s recent coverage of events at London Metropolitan University. London Met has decided to outsource all of its services except for, surprisingly, teaching and, of course, the vice chancellor’s office. Outsourcing of academic services on such a scale is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in Britain. There are ample reports on the negative consequences which outsourcing to for-profit companies has had for staff and students in areas such as English preparation courses for overseas students. One can only imagine the effects of the whole-sale outsourcing of an entire university on the community of people who work and study there.

It is thus more than telling that The Guardian would allow, of all people, Carl Lygo, the head of BPP Professional Education, to comment on the case. BPP provides for-profit education in a variety of areas. It belongs to the Apollo Group, an American corporation that also owns a variety of other educational establishments in the USA and Latin American, such as the most interesting University of Phoenix. It is self-evident that a key actor in for-profit education would commend London Met’s decision. Indeed, Mr. Lygo has much praise for Professor Malcolm Gillies, London Met’s vice chancellor.

“Gillies is now taking business economics one step further with the announcement that “London Metropolitan University will outsource all services except teaching and [of course] the vice-chancellor’s office”. How scary, you might think. Surely, this is a masterstroke. Gillies is aiming to have his academic faculty concentrate on what they do best, being academics and teaching. When you delve behind the headlines, what you find is that he’s actually trying to establish a centre of excellence for university back-office services, which he is then going to sell to other universities to help them improve service, reduce costs and of course make a return for London Metropolitan University. He’s seeking a private-sector partner to help him achieve this.”

All this is unsurprising. Mr. Lygo employs the standard language of the higher education manager in neoliberal times, arguing in terms of services, cost-cutting, profit-making, and, elsewhere in the article, market competition and business economics. A businessman here imagines universities as a platform for business, and the business world seems to define the linguistic boundaries within which Mr. Lygo argues. Interestingly, he picks up on Malcolm Gillies’ disciplinary background in music and linguistics. This allows him to compare Professor Gillies’ choices favourably with those of two other vice chancellors:

“So how comfortable do you feel with this exposure to the market? Often the leaders of our great civic universities have reached the top by being the very best academics in their field. Has this prepared them well for the ravages of market competition? The University of the Creative Arts (UCA) has had a reported drop in applicants of 29.7% and is led by vice-chancellor Dr Simon Ofield-Kerr, a distinguished academic in fine art. The University of Roehampton in London has had a reported drop in applicants of 27.5% and is led by vice-chancellor Prof Paul O’Prey, a leading academic expert in poetry. Both face tremendous challenges in this new market for higher education.”

The implications of this train of thought are, again, obvious: Exposure to the market is an unquestionable and hard-and-fast reality. In order to cope, academic talents and achievement matter little. Only business acumen really counts. The derogation of scholarship in general and the humanities in particular that’s inherent in Mr. Lygo’s statements does point to a worrying level of anti-intellectualism. Such anti-intellectualism is, however, hardly uncommon in contemporary public debates about higher education.

What’s much more interesting is The Guardian’s decision to let Carl Lygo be the first person to comment on the events at London Met. For-profit education is, in its ethos and in its day-to-day operations, very different from academic life at public universities. It’s therefore not readily apparent why Mr. Lygo would be a particularly suitable commentator, or at least a leading national newspaper’s very first choice. There are arguably numerous others who possess greater knowledge and more in-depth experience of what it is like to study, teach, and do research at a university like London Met: academics and administrators who actually work at New Universities, students who study there, student union representatives, trade union representatives, and educational scientists with a general understanding of higher education in Britain all readily come to mind. The fact that The Guardian chose a businessman over all these alternatives does speak volumes. It suggests that, in Britain in 2012, it has become very hard indeed to imagine higher education as anything more than big business.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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