Against The Grain: 'You can't apply market tests to universities'

Professor Roger Brown is co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research at Liverpool Hope University. He argues that the increasing involvement of employers in undergraduate courses risks turning higher education into an economic commodity rather than an intellectual one

Interview,Chris Green
Thursday 13 March 2008 01:00

The Government has been trying for at least 20 years to get universities more involved in working with business, and it has been quite successful. However, I think that getting businesses to fund undergraduate degrees is risky; if you are to get employers to invest in undergraduate courses, you're going to have to offer them considerable rates of subsidy – is that a good use of public money?

While I'm not opposed to higher education working with business in applied areas, what has to be protected is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. My main worry is that the more the economic benefits of education are emphasised – including the benefits for employers – the more we are in danger of losing sight of those basic core principles. Higher education is a public good, and should be funded as such. You simply can't apply the same market tests used in a commercial business to universities.

For the past 20 years, governments have increasingly seen the sector in terms of the contribution it makes to the economy, through things like the training of graduates, knowledge transfer and applied research. That's not wrong – but it is the wrong emphasis. What's happened is that activities like training and technology transfer have become centre stage, when they used to be seen as marginal.

Making education subject to market forces can have all sorts of pernicious effects: it biases the research you do, and it makes some subject areas very vulnerable because they don't attract the same degree of market support. The closure of chemistry and physics departments is a direct result of this market phenomenon. It's also due to lack of student demand, but that in turn is caused by students being encouraged to do subjects that have a vocational payoff. This is distorting the balance of the higher education curriculum.

If present trends continue, higher education will look very different in 15 or 20 years' time. You will have a small group of institutions providing traditional higher education – and people will pay handsomely to attend them – but you'll have a much bigger private sector that doesn't have such high educational standards. In the middle will be a lot of marginal institutions endeavouring to provide decent higher education without the resources to pay for it.

We have to restate the public benefits of higher education: culture, civilisation, ideas and discovery. And then we have to decide what we're prepared to pay for it.

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