21 May 2008

'Challenging the market in education': report

by Les Levidow

On 17th May 2008 the UK's Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) hosted a conference on 'Challenging the market in education', looking at all educational levels and so also involving the National Union of Teachers. A booklet with the same title has been published by the UCU Campaigns Department, hopefully available from hq@ucu.org.uk.

I attended the workshop on 'The marketisation of university funding – impact on teaching and research'. It was good to see a high-profile conference recognising threats from a pervasive, subtle process of marketisation, not simply from privatisation. Some points from the booklet and workshop update my 2000 article, which emphasised that pervasive process and its diverse forms. Through marketisation, social relations are turned into business relations – between entrepreneurial partners, market competitors, vendors and consumers, managers and managed, etc.

Here is my report, which may be useful more widely than in the UK.

Marketisation of higher education takes many forms and disguises. Formal privatisation, e.g. transferring financial assets or contracting out services to the private sector, is only the most overt form. A more widespread threat is marketisation, effectively transforming and transferring intellectual assets into commodity-type relations. The marketisation process is generally disguised through benign language such as reform, modernisation, knowledge society, quality, etc. The drive comes partly from international institutions (e.g. World Bank, European Union) but also from university administrations, which often adopt business language and structures. For many years the Vice-Chancellors have addressed 'the business of higher education'.

The marketisation drive takes many forms. Academic units are turned into 'cost centres', whereby staff internalise a cost accounting for their time, with less willingness to cooperate with apparent competitors. TRAC forms, supposedly a record of activity, can be used as timesheets for disciplining labour time according to market criteria. E-learning systems supposedly help students but are often designed to separate students from teachers, turning their relations into consumers-vendors. Partnerships with the private sector effectively marketise university resources, putting staff under pressure to accommodate. A grotesque example is the Open University's involvement in the Metrix consortium with military supply companies, together bidding to provide military training, previously unbeknownst to most OU staff. See http://www.qinetiq.com/home_metrix_review/about_metrix.html.

As an effective response to those diverse examples and disguises, university staff can campaign against the ways that marketisation undermines our working conditions – for example:

- the drive for higher workloads and/or redundancies;
- attacks on our professional capacities and roles; and
- degradation of quality, especially through performance criteria

To be successful, a campaign against marketisation and its effects needs a broad vision. This can be developed in several ways:

- locating any specific threat within the wider neoliberal agenda;
- carrying out a battle for ideas for the public good versus marketisation;
- proposing alternative forms of quality and modernisation towards a different future;
- highlighting and defending the gift economy, as the cooperative basis for our academic work; and
- making alliances with civil society and community groups, including of course students.

Members need a brief strategy document explaining the pervasive threat of marketisation, especially how local examples relate to national and global policies. This document would help to inform discussion on how to resist and counterpose alternatives.

Les Levidow
Development Policy and Practice
The Open University