The marketisation marvel in higher education

The marketisation marvel in higher education

This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action:  The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan

After 45 years of working with and writing about, volunteers and voluntary organisations, Rochester is better qualified than most to stimulate and inform a debate about the notion of a ‘invented’ unified voluntary and community sector in the UK; to observe the nature of the relationship between government and this sector as it takes on the ‘mainstream’ delivery of state services; to revise the typology of voluntary action; and to call for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field.  My second post will be about voluntary action and the research agenda.

Rochester’s seminal work is published against the background of the rise and rise of a neo-liberal discourse that has seeped into every aspect of our lives.  It is a refreshing and timely addition to the congregation that is calling for a different approach to how we understand what it is to be a person in the western world; an approach that enables us to acknowledge and embrace expression as a form of sociality and being.

The beginning of the neo-liberal agenda in this country, in this context, is marked as the election of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 which Rochester sees as a milestone, alongside 1945; a marker of a new phase of political and social history.  As many have observed elsewhere, this agenda continued to thrive through the New Labour administrations and we now have a new multi-party consensus about the, ‘parameters and driving forces of public and social policy’.  Rochester declares that the rise of neo-liberalism has led to the permeation of voluntary organisations and volunteering by the values and norms of the market as part of a profound and far-reaching change in the political culture, not only of the UK but also of much of the World.

No doubt Rochester would agree that these market values and norms have pervaded many domains of our existence; personal and professional.  The marketisation of higher education, for example, observed daily by those of us who work in the sector, gained impetus this month with the publication of the OFT Call for Information on Higher Education in England.  In response to the OFT findings, Paul Clarke (Director of Policy at Universities UK), acknowledges that in the opinion of the OFT, some higher education structures and practices, ‘belong to an era that has now passed.’  The parallels between Rochester’s analysis of the voluntary & community sector and what is happening in higher education today are striking.

According to Rochester, the ‘invention’ of a unified voluntary sector in Britain facilitated the casting of voluntary sector organisations in a more central role on the stage of social policy in the delivery of state services.  He describes the promotion of a unified voluntary sector as a ‘massive sleight of hand’, whereby the organisational norms of bureaucracy and the culture and practices of the private sector has ensured that the real beneficiaries of this greater role in the provision of state services are the top two percent of voluntary agencies including NCVO and ACEVO, and those in government bent on privatising public services.  He says that Government has been able to implement its policies under the cloak of ‘public esteem for charities’ and the argument that voluntary organisations have distinctive characteristics which given them ‘unique’ advantages over statutory bureaucracies.

Rochester questions these ‘distinctive’ characteristics as he observes the increasing homogenisation of the voluntary and community sector.  He is not referring to all voluntary organisations but the small minority that have been trusted with this new role of providing state services.  He says they are unrepresentative and that they have, ‘more in common with the agencies they have supplanted than they have with the bulk of the organisations that comprise the sector and provide the evidence for the characteristics featured in government rhetoric.’

My experience of working as a manager in the public and voluntary sectors concurs with Rochester’s observations.  Indeed, as a boundary-crosser, moving between these sectors (and then into higher education), it could be argued that I have been culpable in transmitting new managerial norms and practices from one sector to the next.  Rochester is particularly critical of the infrastructure organisations, the CVSs which have actively played their part through initiatives such as the ChangeUp programme and says that voluntary organisations have been, ‘nudged, bribed and sometimes coerced into becoming more and more similar in their structure and behaviour to the bureaucratic agencies of the state and the market.’

As someone who has been involved with the voluntary sector as a volunteer and as a manager, I have observed the colonisation of some of the larger charities by former local government employees who have in many respects turned their charities into the mirror image of the organisations they had left behind.  And in the circumstances you can hardly blame them.  As Rochester points out, the biggest voluntary organisations have been given a more central role in the delivery of public services and have gained substantial new resources as a result.

Rochester concludes that the models of business organisations have come to dominate our society and social institutions over the past thirty years.  He says that being ‘business-like’ was the ‘desirable characteristic’ and this meant imitating the approaches and techniques used in the private sector without questioning how appropriate and/or helpful they might be in organisations that were based on very different values and principles.

Many of us can bear witness to a similar trend in higher education.  What has elsewhere been described as the ‘economic ideology of education’ is a phenomenon much debated. But it is not a recent revelation.  In 1890 German university professors complained that their world was increasingly dominated by blind economic processes, by the power of money, and by the weight of numbers (Salter and Tapper 1994).  In universities today, this manifests itself in a discourse and managerial structure dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world.  As a member of the new management clan in a university, I am no innocent bystander though at times it feels like I’m drowning in an alien discourse that bears little or no resemblance to my own academic practice.

According to Rochester, many voluntary organisations have lost sight of their original purposes and functions, and apart from not distributing their profits or surpluses as dividends, they are indistinguishable from private sector companies.  I believe that universities ARE still distinguishable from private sector companies.

As the marketisation marvel glides confidently into the admissions arena, I hear colleagues declare “it’s official, we are now a ‘private enterprise’”.

Really?

This post represents my own views and not those of my institution.

References:

OFT report: higher education is a market, but the student-university relationship remains unique – UUK Blog posted on 14 March 2014 by Paul Clark

http://blog.universitiesuk.ac.uk/2014/03/14/oft-report-higher-education/

Salter, B. and Tapper, T (1994) The State and Higher Education The Woburn Press

One thought on “The marketisation marvel in higher education

  1. I really welcome the coverage Colin’s book is getting. I think that the discussion and the variety of responses to it are a mark of its importance and significance too. There will be a defenisive response from those who feel that his critique is aimed at them (this has already happened) and there will be a concern that the complexities and contradictions we all experience working and and with the VCs are not fully refllected in his text. But, I think – as Julie is showing – these reservations are less important than the debate it is creating. We are still in the midst of a major and profound restructuring of the welfare state. And we can discuss the relative proportions of spend on the state now compared with 10 or 20 or 30 years ago but that is (I think) to miss the point. The restructuring which is taking place is reshaping the organisational and cultural and political bias in favour of state funded agencies working with the VCS and towards the marketisation of welfare provision through the entry of private sector businesses. And it is this transformation which is revealing the relative weaknesses of the VCS ‘leadership’ and the sector itself. It is the lack of a voice which is arguing against these changes rather than seeking to be ‘inside’ the tent (as it were) influencing them. At its most simple – we need to be outside the tent !

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