Friday, 21 November 2008

Educational commodities: my ideas about the mechanisms

Pretty much everyone says that higher education – both teaching and research – was commodified in the 1980s. The values that underpin the shift to commodification are generally agreed upon (neoliberalism, largely) but the exact mechanisms are much harder to pin down.

My feeling has been that much of the commodifying task has been accomplished by the time of the Dawkins reforms in the late 1980s. If this were the case, it would suggest that it is more than policy that has driven educational commodification (for we know, c/- Marginson, those processes pretty well too).

From my recent research, I think that the commodification of education (that is, in this case, enrolling) occurred in a very short time span - between 1980 and 1982. Here’s how.

The newspapers show that in this period, academics had an image problem. The funniest description I found for them was “layabout dons” (which sounds like a grotesque cross between the god-professor and the student-ratbag) – lazy, leisured (now in a bad way) and irrelevant. In fact, the word “academic” had started to mean “irrelevant”.

Tenure was somewhat blamed for this, and requests for salary increases by the staff unions (not yet recognised as unions legally) probably didn’t help, though was happening everywhere. Bureaucracy had a bad name too, with the public imagining universities to be run by Humphrey Appleby types inclined to systemic inefficiency. Worse, some university administration was still in the hands of academics (seen to be important in previous eras) and academics were seen to know even less about administration than they did about anything else relevant to the “real world”.

So between layabout dons and bureaucratic administrative processes, universities were seen as large, lumbering wastes of public money. And every dollar of public money in all the OECD countries was under intense scrutiny since the oil shocks of the late 1970s.

In light of public opinion and the scarcity of public funds, it is unsurprising that in 1981 the Fraser government decided to decrease spending on higher education. Strikes by academics and students do nothing to enhance public support for them, of course. No one likes layabouts striking.

Federal and (especially) State governments start “interfering” in universities much more explicitly, all calling for more political representation on university Councils/Senates. Qld and Vic both try to pass laws that would give them control perhaps even over course content.

Universities were continually lobbying for funding and autonomy, but right-wing intellectuals and politicians started suggesting that if universities want autonomy they should diversify their income streams and not be so reliant on Commonwealth funding. A more diverse income stream would prevent external influence, they argued.

At the same time, the earlier 1970s growth in student enrolment at university had reversed for demographic and other reasons – fewer students were enrolling at university, enhancing the sense that funding should decrease.

Very importantly, since funding was attached to students in their allocation, with students suddenly scarce, for the first time universities started to compete for them. The very first advertisements appeared – starting with Sydney University, but very quickly followed by the rest.

Without making any successful policy decisions, government expressed a great deal of interest in replacing at least some of the funding of universities with fees and they were also keen on loans to students.

Claims were made publicly that some of the inefficiencies of universities are a result of their failure of client-focus by bureaucracy. Universities would be more efficient were they to see students as clients and it was asserted that fees would assist them to do this. This idea starts to gain some sympathy within universities as well, creating the condition necessary for active and deliberate marketisation of higher education.

All it took for commodification was two years. While several colliding conditions contributed to it, I can’t but feel that it was the bad reputation of academics that really enabled it.

(Note that this description only considers commodification of education as a product, not yet of teaching as an act or of research. These were coming soon.)

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