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EUSJA General Assembly

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Prague, Czech Republic
March 14–17, 2013

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Hotson: The idea of a fully marketized university system is ludicrous

The Institute of Philosophy of ASCR on November 26–27, 2012 hosted two lectures by Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford and steering committee chair of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. You can read an interview with him. The lecture Understanding the Global University Crisis: The Marketisation of English Higher Education in International Perspective is available on-line.


Photo: Stanislava Kyselová, Academic bulletin
Professor Howard Hotson during his lecture


1. The British educational system has a worldwide reputation, and a long tradition. Last year higher education in Great Britain went through a radical reform which resulted in many demonstrations. To that extend did this new reform shift the UK higher education towards the US system?
The extraordinary thing is that, if what distinguishes the US is the marketalisation of higher education, then the UK has overtaken the US in this regard and is now arguably more radically marktetized than any other major university system in the world. Three quarters of American students study at publicly funded universities, only one quarter study at private universities. But in the new UK system all universities are now effectively privately funded to the extent that typically only 20 percent of their funding for undergraduate education comes directly from the state and 80 percent is paid by student tuition fees, albeit funded by government backed students loans.
So it is not really fair to say that the UK university system is being remodeled on the US system. The English university system is doing something completely unprecedented, that no other country has ever done: namely, the abolition overnight, at the stroke of a pen, of a primarily publicly financed university system and its replacement with a system which right across the whole country is essentially privately financed. That is one of the reasons why I regard it as reckless. There is no precedent for it. So how can we know, empirically, whether it will be beneficial or harmful? We think of Britain as the country of Francis Bacon, of John Locke, of David Hume, as home to a great empirical tradition; but this radical reform is being taken on no empirical basis because it is completely unprecedented. We may also think of the United Kingdom as a very conservative and pragmatic place, but this is radical, ideologically driven reform.
It is nevertheless true that some aspects of what is being imposed have already been piloted in the United States. But the UK government seems to have paid no attention to the results of the US experience. For-profit universities, for instance, have been growing exponentially in the United States; and many of the main American institutions of government are very unhappy with the way in which the for-profit university experiment has played itself out there. Yet there is no evidence that the UK government has studied the problems with the for-profit university model. It seem to be importing it uncritically from United States – an extraordinarily imprudent thing to do, in my view.

2. European higher education systems generally face a deep transformation which is supposed to aim toward competitiveness and marketization of higher education. Where do you see the biggest threat from these reforms?
Well it comes down to the fundamental issue of the marketization. And it is difficult to get this message across because it sounds abstract. But the fundamental question is whether universities should be entirely absorbed within the market or whether universities can only play at least some of their vital functions by staying outside of the market.
The marketization of the university means displacing academic values by market values. This means that what ultimately matters is not the pursuit of understanding but the financial bottom line: the profit of the individual student, the profit of the individual institution, and the profit of the financial, industrial and commercial interests which feed off the university. Now, our society, our culture, our political system is already largely driven by market values. We do not need to reinforce those values further by subordinating the university to them. This is particularly true at the current moment, since the enormous problems which we confront in the twenty-first century are problems created by our single-minded pursuit of private profit and material consumption. We are consuming too much; and we are not planning for a long-term future. Our solution to every economical problem is to stimulate more economic growth. But we cannot continue endlessly to increase our level of consumption when our planet has finite resources.
So in fact the biggest problem confronting every society in the world is not how to stimulate more economic growth, it is looking beyond that, to how we are going to reengineer our entire cultural, societal and economic system to live in a more sustainable fashion. If we want to do that, I believe that every discipline in the university curriculum has a role to play. There are technical problems to be overcome; there are political problems to be overcome; there are fundamental cultural problems to be overcome. Amongst many other things, for instance, we need to remember that there are many intrinsically worthwhile activities which do not involve high levels of consumption. Some of these intrinsically worthwhile activities are called the liberal arts, which are at the center of the traditional university curriculum. By promoting those disciplines, we are promoting amongst the next generation the many intrinsically valuable and rewarding activities which do not involve over-consumption. So every discipline in the university has a contribution to make to this radical reengineering of contemporary culture, politics, society and economics; but they can only perform that function if they are not swallowed up by the market. If on the other hand they are swallowed up by market, then all those non-market values disappear and we further accelerate our momentum down the current unsustainable path.

3. During your presentation you mentioned that students are viewed as consumers or customers. In this regard what is your opinion about the effect this attitude has on teachers and the structure of Universities?
Although in the UK the conception of students as consumers is supposedly being imposed in the interests of students, the students don’t like it any more than their teachers. They may not know exactly what it is they want but it is not just to be a customer. And teachers don’t aspire just to be service providers either.
In order to see how fundamentally inadequate this conception is, all we really need to do is step back and look at education in a broader perspective. What is it that distinguishes us from our ancestors 20 000 years ago? It is not biology: it is culture, it is everything that we have learned - every moral value, every technical skill, every intellectual principle we have learned, and learned how to pass on to the next generation in a way in which the next generation can internalize it, criticize it, and then to pass it on in turn. So education is absolutely fundamental to the human condition, and that process of criticism and transmission takes place at highest level in the university. That process is what academics want to participate in: in a relationship between one human being and another, between one generation and another, through which we transmit all of the most valuable things we have learned. This is not a market transaction. It is not based on the principle that if you pay me a little I will teach you something of little value and if you pay me a lot I will teach you something of great value. This is a fundamental human transaction, and it debases that transaction both for the teacher and for the student to regard it as a simply monetary exchange. Fortunately, I think, the students see this just as well as the teachers.

4. You are an initiator and member of the new Council for Defence of British Universities, which was established only a couple of weeks ago. The main role of this initiative is to defend academic values. What steps are you going to undertake?
We understand very well that this is a huge enterprise and one long overdue. I think we will need to proceed in a variety of different ways. The founding members of the Council for the Defence of the British Universities are some of the most eminent academics in the country. These are people who can communicate directly with ministers of universities and science from a position of authority and strength. So one mode of activity we would envisage is direct communication between the British Academy, the Royal Society and government ministers on specific points of higher education policy.
On the other hand my view is that the defence of academic values is a campaign which will be won or lost in the public sphere. The only way to fundamentally redirect higher education policy is to remind the British electorate of the stakes which every man, woman and child in the UK has in a thriving, prosperous, independent university system. We have a lot of work to do in researching our position and then formulating that position in such a way that it can have impact in a public debate. But because we have some of the most prominent and successful broadcasters in UK already as founding members of the Council, we hope to be able to use the BBC and other media to help get our views across to the British people. I would look forward to is radio programmes and television programmes which repackage existing resources in such a way that they convey very forcefully to ordinary men and women up and down the country that the UK is extremely fortunate to have an excellent university system, that the university system is in a jeopardy, that they should not allow it to be undermined by an alien set of values.
We also have to organize ourselves to reach out through a membership drive: we need to reach via learned societies to fellow academics, to students, to early carrier academics, to alumni, and beyond them to the general public. There is a huge amount to do but we are getting some very energetic cooperation from people, and for an organization that is only two weeks old there are plenty of signs that we can actually accomplish something significant.

5. You are working on a new book which is dealing with higher education school systems. As a professor of early modern intellectual history, to what extend have you been inspired by your project Culture of Knowledge?
It may seem paradoxical that an early modern intellectual historian should be involved in twenty-first-century higher education policy. But what intellectual historians do is study the ways in which traditions of intellectual innovation and creativity are grounded in social, political, and cultural circumstances and institutions. And that is precisely what I have attempted in this lecture: to relate the current crisis of the university to its general economic circumstances. More generally, one of the things which the Council for the Defence of British Universities can do is retrospectively to view all the different cultural values which have sustained the western intellectual tradition and non-western intellectual traditions throughout history. This would be an interesting exercise, because it will show that market forces are utterly inadequate to sustain the kind of intellectual creativity on which the world’s prosperity and well-being increasingly depend.
What most excites me about Cultures of Knowledge and Early Modern Letters Online is using digital technology to create a platform for radically multi-lateral scholarly communication and cooperation. The communications revolution of the 17th century provided ordinary scholars with the capacity to distribute corpora of correspondence across and beyond whole continents. Individual scholars do not have the recourses to reassemble those scattered bodies of correspondence. But scholarly communities can do that if provided with digital repositories to which all of them have easy access. So effectively what this project is about is helping to consolidate international scholar communities of cooperation and collaboration rather than competition. Digital technology has fabulous potential to help us collaborate and cooperate with one another, in an open-source non-hierarchical sort of community basis.
So one of the reasons this project appeals to me so much is because is runs directly counter to the market conception of the university, in which one scholar is in competition with all the other scholars, each department with every other department, each university with every other university, and each national university system with other national university systems. Of course rivalry is a part of the equation, but the market conception of the universities subordinates cooperation and collaboration to competition. Ultimately since scientific method depends on knowledge being shared openly, cooperation has to be even more important than competition.

6. There were indications in the media that British students have started leaving the UK and have begun studying for example in the Netherlands or in other European countries. So there is also thread of the outflow of UK students from Great Britain?
This is an absolutely an extraordinary thing. The whole theory of the globalized economy depends on investing in your areas of competitive advantage. A globalized economy only makes everyone more prosperous if each community concentrates its attention on those things that does particularly well. One of the few things that Britain still does particularly well is universities. One might therefore suppose that, in order to compete in the globalized economy, the UK government would be investing heavily in the area of competitive advantage enjoyed by English speaking countries with great university systems. But instead the UK is pulling public money out of universities, it is now keeping foreign students away, it is inviting foreign companies to set up for-profit universities in the UK, and it is effectively incentivizing British students to study abroad, where they can get comparable education in Dutch universities, Swiss universities or Danish universities at a fraction of the price. This is further evidence of the incompetence and incoherence of UK higher education policy.
Given the relatively low levels of funding enjoyed by the UK university system, it is little short of a miracle that they remain as good as they are. England has in many respects a very anti-intellectual culture; and if the English destroy their university system through reckless reforms such as these they will never get it back again because there are more prosperous and better governed countries out there which are already catching up and are going to overtake them unless these changes are reverse and far more care is taken to formulate coherent and prudent alternative policies.

7. Which educational system in Europe do you consider to be the best one?
I have spent a quite a lot of time in the last year or two, trying to find ways of determining which university systems offer the best value for money. The marketization of the UK university system is based on the premise that publicly funded university systems are inefficient, and that privatized and marketized systems are efficient. The curious thing that no one appears to have tested this key premise empirically.
Testing it, to be sure, is not easy. There are several different measures of the academic value created by university systems, and there are several different measures of the money invested in those systems; so there are various ways of calculating the value for money produced by different university system. By many of these measures, the UK university system is as efficient as or more efficient than any other country. But the UK system is relatively poorly funded; and there are a few better-funded systems which use their funding almost equally well and might therefore claim to be better overall. The most notable examples appear to be Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Now, what do these systems have in common? They are overwhelmingly publically funded university systems, in which students pay either no tuition at all or very little tuition. Highly marketized systems, by contrast, such as the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil, appear to offer relatively poor value for money overall. So, the evidence seems to suggest the direct opposite of the assumption underlying UK higher education policy: the best value for money is offered by publicly funded systems, and some of the worst value for money amongst major university systems is offered by those which are largely privately funded.
It is difficult to formulate this argument in such a rigorous fashion that it is unobjectionable. All one can do is to suggest that a huge body of readily available evidence appears to indicate the precise opposite of what UK policymakers have assumed: namely, that marketization seems to drive value for money down rather than up. And once you recognize that this is what the evidence suggests, it is easy to suggest the economic reasons why marketization is counter-productive. No one has ever devised an accurate quantitative measure of the quality of undergraduate teaching. Without such a measure, student-customers cannot make the rational choices which collectively drive up value for money. Instead, they must decide on the basis of measures unreliably correlated with the quality of teaching, measures which can be gamed, misrepresented, and misinterpreted in a wide variety of obvious ways. The inevitable result is market failure of one kind or another, in which the power of markets is channeled in unproductive and inefficient ways unintended by policymakers.

8. You mentioned that in the UK students pay fees, which are some of the highest in Europe. What is your opinion on that?
Even before the current ‘reforms’, English universities charged domestic students an average of about £3250 per year in tuition. No other European country charged remotely comparable tuition fees, and the only higher ones were in the US and Korea. But as of this year, English tuition fees have been dramatically raised again to an average of over £8000 As a result, the average tuition fees in English universities are now far higher than any other public university system anywhere, perhaps even higher than the average in the United States where one quarter of students pay very high fees to study at private universities but three quarters pay much lower fees to study at public universities. So we may have the highest tuition fees in the entire world now, and the absurdity is that the UK government is attempting to argue that this is actually a good deal for students.
But even this radical increase has not introduced a real market in university tuition. A real market in higher education would mean that you sell the best higher education at astronomical prices to the wealthiest customers. In Britain, this would mean that Oxford and Cambridge are exclusively reserved for very wealthy people, irrespective of their academic ability. Does anyone actually think that that is the way to create a great university system? Of course not. Does anyone actually think that this would be in the interest of the cohesiveness of British society or the competitiveness of the UK economy? Of course not. But that is what real marketization would do. There is actually no fully marketized university system of any standing in the world – even in the United States - because the whole idea is ludicrous. Marketization subordinates academic value to monetary value, so its ultimate effect is to drive academic standards down rather than up.

Editor of Academic bulletin


17 Jan 2013