Two Views. You Choose: HE market - resist from the inside or reject?

Wednesday 07-10-2015 - 16:34

In the lead up to our annual Zone Conferences, NUS is highlighting the key themes from each of the five Zones. For this Two Views You Choose piece, we’re exploring the debate around whether the marketisation of Higher Education should be resisted from the inside or rejected outright. Agree? Disagree? Have your say by voting in the poll at the bottom of the page.

This debate centres on the marketisation of Higher Education, ultimately asking what the best method is to put up resistance and shape discussions without becoming complicit in the marketisation process. Moreover, the debate explores how the student movement can lead a narrative on a truly transformative education system.

Should the marketisation of Higher Education be resisted from the inside or rejected outright?

Reject the market outright

Governments of the past thirty years have all argued that a market in education raises standards for students, improves choice and provides greater efficiency for the taxpayer. They were unequivocally wrong.

The market in higher education has driven up fees and student debt, stifled choice and decimated part-time learning, made student accommodation unaffordable, replaced investment in academic staff and teaching resources with unfettered spending on marketing and gimmicks, and subjected academics to precarious, short-term contracts and performance measures.

Whether we like it or not, many students and students’ unions have become deeply immersed in the logics of the market. They are trying to make the most out of the realities that they are faced with by utilising the tools at their disposal: the National Student Survey, league table results, the Quality Assurance Agency, consumer rights legislation.

But the real danger is that we seem to be conceding more and more ground to the market, without gaining very much as a result. The NSS may give unions a chance to argue for improvements in certain areas, but it is also the very instrument which shuts institutions off from properly engaging with students. Student engagement becomes a bunch of numbers and a meeting every now and then with the Education Officer.

There are those who embrace the idea of a more structured way of measuring teaching quality, but while quality assurance and teaching excellence are concepts gripped in the market ideology of government, they will never achieve their aims. The Teaching Excellence Framework is nothing more than a market mechanism designed to justify increases in tuition fees and force institutions to conform to a politicised image of what excellent teaching is, one based more on employment outcomes and survey results than what actually goes on in lectures and classes.

As a movement we must look beyond our short-term interests, stop making concessions and start taking seriously the damage that market competition is causing. If we want to have an education system worth fighting for, we must not be complacent. We must ask, if we were starting from scratch, would we really want or need a National Student Survey? Do we really want to rely on consumer rights legislation to protect students, or should we be fighting for a system based on democratic rights and public duties?


Supporting students: resisting marketisation from the inside

There are many valid criticisms of metrics such as the National Student Survey and institutional quality assurance processes, which largely centre on how they are used (and abused). Of course we don’t want crude statistics to be used for performance management of academics; of course we don’t want league tables and marketisation to distract universities from their core purpose of undertaking excellent research and teaching; obviously we don’t want QA processes to be a pointless tick-box exercise.

Across the student movement we can agree on those things. But it is perfectly possible to vehemently oppose the use of such metrics and processes for one purpose, whilst engaging with them for a different purpose. It is also possible to acknowledge their flaws, whilst still using them to help you to achieve change: yes, the NSS questions have their faults; no, it’s not the be-all and end-all of student engagement, but it’s a start. And university/college management take it seriously, which hands power to students and students’ unions if you use “their” tools to advance your own, student-friendly, agenda.It needs to be acknowledged that there is a power imbalance between students and institutional management. By refusing to engage with existing mechanisms because they oppose aspects of them, students’ unions are shutting themselves out of opportunities to make students’ lives better. Furthermore, by having an “insider” in the room who can articulate the problems with the existing mechanisms, space is created for the “outsider” views to be heard.

If you don’t like the NSS and find quality assurance a pointless exercise in bureaucracy, engage with your institution and try to change how these mechanisms work or are used. Lobby for alternative methods of student engagement to be strengthened. Argue for a more student-friendly approach to QA. Get students into the room where decisions are made and give them the tools to win their arguments.

Students’ unions have achieved real changes that improve students’ lives using the NSS. It enables benchmarking between institutions, which can be a driver for change over a wide range of issues that have a huge impact on students’ academic lives. We should use the tools we have to get the results students need.

No, the market is not good for students, academics or a quality education. We should strenuously oppose the introduction of further marketisation, and continue to lobby for existing measures to be improved and used in more helpful ways. But leaving the tools in the toolbox because they aren’t perfect is letting students down.

Should the marketisation of Higher Education be resisted from the inside or rejected outright?
Resisted from the inside
Rejected outright
Poll Maker


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