The Marketisation of Higher Education

Since the late 1970s the culture of academic life has been transformed by the institutionalisation of the policies of marketisation. Outwardly, universities increasingly model themselves on private and especially public sector corporations. Academic exercises and practices have been gradually displaced by management techniques as departments operate more as cost centres often run by administers recruited from the private and public sector.

The Marketisation of higher education

Advocates of marketisation argue that this process will turn higher education into a more flexible and efficient institution. There are claims that the expansion of the market into the lecture hall will provide better value for money and ensure that the university sector will become more efficient and more responsive to the needs of society, the economy, students and parents.


The policy driven term ‘marketisation’ is fundamentally an ideological one and its meaning is far from self evident. Marketisation does not necessarily mean or lead to the creation of a market in the sale, production and purchase of academic education.


It is not always clear what is being bought and sold. So is the student purchasing instruction in an academic discipline or buying a credential necessary for the pursuit of a profession ? Or are they doing both ? It appears that what we have is a highly controlled quasi-market that forces institutions to compete against one another for resources and funding.


Academia has always been a competitive enterprise and since medieval times universities often possessed a profound sense of institutional self interest and regarded one another with a degree of suspicion. Universities have always competed for resources, and in modern times for research funding. These forms of rivalries have existed in an uneasy relationship with the imperative of academic collaboration.


Academics are members of an intellectual community who need to collaborate with another. Yet they are also individuals who are set increasing in an environment concerned with cultivating their own reputation and sometimes positioned aggressively against each other. What is new and potentially disturbing about the marketisation of education is the attempt to recast the relationship between academics and students along the model of a service provider and customer.


It is important to understand that marketisation is as much an ideological process as an economic phenomenon. Colin McCaig suggests marketing has become a vehicle for the promotion of Widening Participation; Professor Frank Furedi suggests that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that marketisation is as much about social engineering as economic concerns.


In his paper ‘English Universities, Additional Fee Income and Access Agreements: Their Impact On Widening Participation and Fair Access’ McCaig argues that in an increasingly market-driven system, institutions use access agreements primarily to promote enrolment to their own programmes rather than to promote system-wide objectives.


As a consequence differences in relation to widening participation and fair access are perpetuated, leading to both confusion for consumers and an inequitable distribution of bursary and other support mechanisms for the poorest applicants to Higher Education.


The funding system seems to have reinforced what Adnett and Coates [ADNETT, N. and COATES, G. (2003) Encouraging cream-skimming and dreg-siphoning? Increasing competition between English HEIs, British Journal of Educational Studies , 51 (3), 202–218] described as a process of cream-skimming and dreg-siphoning of non-traditional entrants to HE in England.]

(English Universities, Additional Fee Income and Access Agreements: Their Impact On Widening Participation and Fair Access, British Journal of Educational Studies, ISSN 0007-1005, DOI number: 10.1111/j.1467-8527.2009.00428.x,Vol. 57, No. 1, March 2009, pp 18–3618 © 2009 The Authors Journal compilation © 2009 SES. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.)


There is fierce competition between universities, who with the help of their governments seek to position themselves as global players in a lucrative sphere of economic activity. Universities, particularly those who possess an international reputation for research, also sell patents, provide consultancy and services and launch leisure and private companies. Higher education has also become involved with the provision of leisure and conference services and operates in this sphere according to the norms that prevail amongst private sector service providers.


Universities competing for funds and selling the fruits of their research need not necessarily be a problem, often the cultural, intellectual and pedagogic consequences of marketisation represents the attempt to commodify academic education. Specifically it is oriented towards the transformation of what is an abstract, intangible, non-material and relational experience into a visible, quantifiable and instrumentally driven process.


The various rituals of commoditisation, such as quality control, auditing and ranking performance, quantifying the experience of students and constructing league tables, are essentially performative accomplishments. It is argued by Furedi that the marketisation of education has been paralleled by an increase in state intervention and the micro-management of university life.


In his article ‘Bologna looms, so Zagreb marches. We barely notice’ in the Guardian, he discusses the possible effects of the Bologna accord and the pressure to standardise degrees across Europe. The initiative’s aim is to facilitate the mobility of students and staff across Europe but he suggests that the likely outcome will be the intensification of the trends which work towards the commodification and bureaucratization of education.

(‘Bologna looms, so Zagreb marches. We barely notice’ by Frank Furedi; The Guardian, Tuesday 17 June 2008; taken from internet 24th October 2014:


The promotion of student consumer consciousness is not simply motivated by the idealisation of the consumer service provider model. According to the logic of marketisation, the customer is always right; the university had better listen to the student.


The culture of complaint has encouraged the emergence of a form of ‘defensive education’ that is devoted to minimising sources of disputes that have the potential to lead to complaint and litigation. Defensive university education encourages a climate where academics are discouraged from exercising their professional judgement when offering feedback or responding to disputed marks.


Criticism of the practice of treating students as consumers was forcefully pursued by Socrates and Plato in Ancient Greece. The principal reason why Socrates was critical of sophist philosopher teachers was because they charged money for their services. Socrates took the view that payment for teaching compromised the relationship between teacher and student. According to Xenophon, Socrates compared those who peddle their wisdom to those who sell their carcasses.


John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill


John Stuart Mill shared Socrates’ concern and noted that paid teachers ‘attain their purposes’ not “by making people wiser or better, but by conforming to their opinions, pandering to their existing desires, and making them better pleased with themselves and with their errors and vices than they were before. And is not this the really formidable temptation of all popular teaching and all literature ? Necessarily aggravated when these are practiced for their pecuniary fruits…”


He continues…“Socrates, we are told by Xenophon, compared those who sell their wisdom to those who sell their caresses, and maintained that both alike ought only to be given in exchange for love. Nor is this inconsistent with the fact that Plato certainly, and Socrates probably, though they took no fees, accepted presents from their admirers: for to minister to the needs of a friend was a duty of friendship; and the Platonic Socrates expresses his whole sentiment on the question by saying, that the teachers of any special art may consistently and reasonably demand payment for their instructions, because they profess to make people good artists or artificers, not good men…”


“… it is the height of inconsistency in a professed teacher of virtue to grumble because those whom he has pretended to instruct do not pay him sufficiently, since his complaint of their injustice is the clearest proof that the instruction has been of no use. Nor is it difficult to find arguments, tenable even from the modern point of view, which might be, and have been, brought to prove the mischief of erecting the commerce of ideas into a money-getting trade.”

(Page 362 John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI – Essays on Philosophy and the Classics [1828], Eds J. M Robson, F. E. Sparshott; University of Toronto Press, Routledge and Kegan Paul: The Online Library of Liberty; A Project Of Liberty Fund, Inc.


These thoughts open up an interesting dialogue around the nature of teaching, education and the university as an institution. Most UK universities are charities, and thus regulated by good work of the charities regulators such as OSCR ( Scotland, and the non-ministerial department of the Charities Commission in England and Wales (


It is obviously reasonable to think about schemes of remuneration for all the individuals involved in ensuring that people in a society are nurtured in such ways that they can take part in the social, intellectual, cultural, economic and civic parts of society. People naturally need paid and charitable activities need to be logistically supported, however, there does seem to be a problem if such institutions as education become corporatized and profit driven.


An extract from the Scottish Charity Register shows us that the University Of Edinburgh (SC005336) was registered as having the purpose of “The advancement of education and Any other purpose that may reasonably be regarded as analogous to any of the preceding purposes” and the beneficiaries of the institution are “Children, young people, Older people, Other defined groups, No specific group, or for the benefit of the community, Other charities/voluntary bodies”.


The University of Edinburgh presents as its activities “It makes grants, donations, loans, gifts or pensions to individuals, It makes grants, donations or gifts to organisations, It carries out activities or services itself”. Legally it makes available its accounts for public inspection and has indicated that they publish annual accounts on their website and that the accounts for 31 Jul 2013 are available for you to view online (


For example, we can see that for 2013, the total income for University of Edinburgh was £738,333,000.00 and their total expenditure was £700,333,000.00; and that the institution was left with a surplus of £38,000,000 for charitable purposes. Taken from internet 26th October 2014:



In an OSCR Briefing Note we can find a clarification of the requirements for the use of the terms ‘charitable’ and ‘charitable purposes’ in constitutions of charities in the Scottish Charity Register:


  • A body must have only charitable purposes
  • The constitution of the body must not allow its property to be used for non-charitable purposes
  • Must not contain in its constitution express powers of direction or control by Ministers
  • Must not be a political party or have as its purpose to advance a political party
  • It must provide public benefit in Scotland or elsewhere. In determining whether a body does so, OSCR must have regard to how the benefit to the public compares to any private benefit or any disbenefit that may result from the activities of the particular body, and to whether there are unduly restrictive conditions on obtaining the benefit the body provides.


In light of the discussions on the commodization of Higher Education, it is worth adding to the discourse the question of what constitutes charitable activity, who benefits from the charitable activity and at what point does ‘marketisation’ start infringing on the core legal requirements of charity law.
The famous American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen discussed the negative effects of placing the profit motive as the directing compass of mutual endeavours coining the term ‘Trained Incapacity’. Veblen insists that “an eye single to pecuniary gain” puts workers, the community, and business people at cross purposes. It is not simply that different interests are at stake; it is that business people are trained to ignore larger concerns associated with “the industrial situation.” Here Veblen explains it, coining the phrase:


“Of course, all this working at cross purposes is not altogether due to trained incapacity on the part of the several contestants to appreciate the large and general requirements of the industrial situation; perhaps it is not even chiefly due to such inability, but rather to an habitual, and conventionally righteous disregard of other than pecuniary considerations.”

[Page 347, The Instinct of Workmanship: And the State of Industrial Arts, Thorstein Veblen, Macmillan, 1914, Harvard University;]


Can we rightly place the ilk of cost cutting managerialism in this frame if the values of marketisation and financialisation are redefining operational standards in the public and third sector. Does trained incapacity describe the technocratic strains of consultancy management which have come to impose targets and measures on areas of service provision which provide public value in the name of efficiency and austerity ?


Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi

From the Socratic perspective the student customer should not be one of the central objectives of the university. Academics are members of an intellectual community who need to collaborate with another. The moment that students begin to regard themselves as customers of academic education, their intellectual development is likely to be compromised.


Mill took the view that the commercialisation of education threatens the integrity and independence of teachers and academics. Mill imagines Plato saying ‘schoolmasters, and the teachers and governors of universities, must, on every subject on which opinions differ provide the teaching which will be acceptable to those who can give them pupils, not that which is really the best.


Is what Plato is suggesting that once teaching becomes subordinate to an agenda that is external to itself it will become distracted from maintaining its integrity?

(Page 362 John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI – Essays on Philosophy and the Classics [1828], Eds J. M Robson, F. E. Sparshott; University of Toronto Press, Routledge and Kegan Paul: The Online Library of Liberty; A Project Of Liberty Fund, Inc.


In abstract, every student can choose to purchase seminar tickets from Trinity College Cambridge. In reality the exercise of choice is constrained by access to cultural capital and socio-economic realities.


Experience shows that the provision of academic teaching does not fit easily into the paradigm of consumption. It becomes something else if it becomes commoditised and bought and sold. Commoditisation inexorably leads to standardization, calculation and formulaic teaching. It reduces quality into quantity and transforms an academic relationship between teacher and student into a transaction dominated by concerns that have little to do with education.


Thankfully academic and research based knowledge cannot be standardized into pre-packaged consumer goods which is why the tension between academic life and marketisation is ultimately irreconcilable. Concepts like marketisation, the higher education market, student choice, the branding of universities or the meaning of consumption need to be unpacked and carefully analyzed. It is important to re-examine all our assumptions about the institutions and cultures we are a part of.

This article is based on a digest of the introduction to the book ‘The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student’ as Consumer Edited by Mike Molesworth, Richard Scullion and Elizabeth Nixon.  The introduction was written by Frank Furedi