Open Eye: Relying solely on market forces puts our highest ideals at risk

WHO WOULD have thought, even as little as 20 years ago, that the face of higher education would change as much as it has? Competition among the traditional, non-profit institutions is increasingly intense, and it seems that the past changes are as nothing to what will happen in the coming years.

Exacerbating this competition are the rapidly growing number of for-profit institutions. Virtual or online programmes have mushroomed and enrol millions of students. Corporate universities have entered the fray and offer certificate programmes, some much prized in the workplace. The impact of technology on teaching and learning has challenged traditional models and made it possible for all institutions to offer programmes off-campus. It has also made for aggressive competition from institutions not burdened with the expectations many students have of traditional campuses. What is becoming clear is that the notions of "face-to-face" and "distance" are blurred (to say the least) and the difference between part-time and full-time irrelevant.

You may say "so what?" to all this - and indeed welcome "the market" sorting out the inefficiencies and peculiarities of the higher education system. It is true that there are some inefficiencies that the market may well eliminate - and it is also true that any system that uses such large amounts of public money must be subject to the accountability which that benefit brings. I believe that universities, encapsulating as they do the highest ideals we have of our society, should be held to even higher standards than other organisations. However, I also believe that these higher ideals are at risk in a system left only to market forces.

What about the research that universities do? If that is determined by market forces then only that research which funders are ready to pay for will be carried out. We are already seeing the results of this. Those problems which are societies' most intractable (poverty, crime, refugee issues etc) are the ones which are least likely to attract research funding.

We have seen in the last few months several universities closing down important disciplines like physics and chemistry. Market forces dictate these things - but there is a limit to how many universities can close down departments offering such basic disciplines. Luckily the UK system boasts a university such as The Open University - a university which can reach people in all parts of the country, and that offers these courses. It will not always be necessarily so for all disciplines. The OU too, is constrained by economic realities.

The arrival of market forces raises some complex social issues and poses some difficult questions for policymakers as well as for the leaders of universities. We all need to ask ourselves what it is we take for granted in institutions which have served society so well for so long - and what needs to be protected from the all-powerful market forces.