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Managerialism, Democracy & the New Political Economy of English Higher Education

October 12, 2015

Discover Society has been reminding its social media followers about an article I wrote for them back in February 2014.

It is still probably the most comprehensive and accessible overview of my thinking on the changing political economy of English higher education.That can probably be explained by the fact that my HE work for the last eighteen months has concentrated on the entry of alternative providers into the system of funded provision and the various policy ramifications of student loans and their attempted sale to the private sector.

You can find the article here. If you place the reference to ‘imminent budget cuts’ – only averted when the Treasury changed the budgeting conventions for student loans in March 2014 – with ‘imminent Comprehensive Spending Review’ it’s all still relevant.

Here’s the concluding paragraph with one of my standard football analogies

Governance, or what we can learn from football 

Twenty years ago, the way money moved around English football changed beyond recognition with the advent of the Premier League and Sky TV. Regarding the ensuing stratification and divisions in the professional game, the Manchester Capitalism blog observed a withering of the club as a social institution’ and a fragility attributable to ‘the growing influence of elite networks around the game.’

Vice-chancellors appear to have less oversight than many football club chairmen. And many of them now talk publicly as if they were appealing to fans desperate for silverware. Consider the recent comments of the Sussex registrar: ‘Universities face a choice: to compete on the global stage or to settle for second-rate status. Our staff and students expect us to aim high, and we do. But this is going to become increasingly difficult. … we cannot afford to be in a position in which any part of our offer to staff and students does not match the best in class.’ Its financial statement from 2011/12 revels in its ambitions for growth and efficiency, backed by significantincreases in borrowing: ‘we will replace targets in many areas … with still more ambitious ones’.

Such animal spirits may be welcome to senior players in government, and after all those salaries for vice chancellors and senior managers aren’t justified by doing nothing, but protests at Sussex underscore that very few are getting a say in such radical strategies, the concomitant risk and transformed working conditions. Accompanying those high salaries, a whole ideology has been imported along with the ‘open sector professionals’ and the consultants. One that is antipathetic to the forms of democratic participation universities are meant to advance.

It is not just that the aggregated decisions of 100 plus universities, nearly 200 FE colleges, and however many alternative providers do not a system make. It is the threat of lost capacity. Since the financial transformation of football, we have seen over 50 clubs go into administration. With more money in the game, the conclusion has to be that the changing revenue flows and diverging outcomes showed up the limitations of club governance. I see no reason to believe that universities are immune to similar challenges. What results, for good or ill, will be difficult to undo. Pace Savielly Tartakower, the mistakes are all there waiting to be made with no guardrails in which we can trust and no sense of the lessons that can be learnt from other sectors and other countries.

Moreover, as I wrote for the Australian publication, Arena: “As universities mirror the increasingly unequal nature of English society … their role in advancing social equality, or minimising embedded disadvantage, will be traduced in a ‘meritocratic’ game of spotting talent and ensuring that it is slotted into the appropriate tier.”

I would prefer that universities did not simply become the privileged object through which to observe the transformative power of the financialised, asset-led, money manager economy. Over the last few years, attention has been on fees and loans, and understandably so, but there is a pressing need to assert democratic governance at individual institutions.

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