Running a university is not like selling baked beans

by reestheskin on 03/04/2016

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Martin Wolf penned a terrific article in the FT, ‘Running a university is not like selling baked beans’. I actually think he was too kind to universities, and I wonder whether he underestimates the change that is necessary in HE.` UK universities are no longer about elite education — their marketing and cacjetis based on their being little room at the top, but their business model is based on the argument that there is plenty of room at the bottom . Some quotes give you a flavour:

The question is partly whether it makes sense to view higher education as a business. The government recognises problems. But it underestimates them.

In its origins and still today, a university is a special institution: a community of teachers and scholars. Its purpose is to generate and impart understanding, from generation to generation. The university is a glory of our civilisation. It is neither a business nor a training school.

An immediate concern, however, is whether the conditions for a competitive market exist. Special institutions have long provided higher education, for good reasons. By definition, students cannot understand what they are buying: that is what makes them students. The value of what they obtain is likely to become evident over many years. They rely on reputation. They must believe, therefore, that the institution cares about its reputation. That is why the longevity of these institutions is so vital.

(The video is also well worth a watch. We are now in a world where even the undead are going to be called upon to subsidise corporate lack of innovation with university ‘laboratories of financial engineering’ (I jest not) suggesting that all of life becomes the substrate for financialisation, and yet more bubbles and misselling (the title is ‘Buying cures versus renting health: Financing health care with consumer loans’). Makes the FT’s caution about buying university bonds seem quite sedate.)

Although I accept the general maxim that reading comments online is akin to masochism, many — if not most of the comments — are well worth reading, and pondering. A selection below:

‘The fact that all universities have shiny marketing departments tells us what is actually going on – students are being conned.’

‘I strongly suggest the government and the British public consider the experience in the U.S. with for-profit universities. It’s been dismal. Students have worthless degrees and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.’

‘I’m at Exeter and the way in which our education is being pimped out is very clear to see.’ 

‘Mediocrity can be commoditized but, not world class excellence and brilliance, the hallmarks of British higher education.’ 

‘I think the article reflects the traditional view that universities have a lock on higher education. For the most part this is true, but I think things are changing’

‘As a somebody who has studied at a Russell group public university and a private professional law school, I can honesly say that this article doesn’t fit with my experience. The public university was complacent, we had poor teaching, lectures of 400+ students, often workshops were palmed off on post graduate students, the buildings were old, we never had the right books and couldn’t find a PC to work on. It was awful.’

‘Talk as you will about superior British universities but those rankings are based upon the past reputation.’ 

‘the UK government, if it were a bank, would be laying itself open to a mis-selling charge. It’s imposing loans on people who are buying a pig in a poke, in the form of a degree whose value is highly uncertain but, given the ineluctable laws of supply and demand, is likely to diminish with every increase in the number of graduates not matched by an increase in graduate jobs.’

‘Please consider Dutch universities. Free, high quality, and english language tuition… and perhaps even closer to your home than unis in the North.’

‘Student loans strike me as the next sub-prime mortgages.’