Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 2

Image: Baird Point at the State University of New York
(referred to by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins)

By Fenella Brandenburg

Continued from Part 1

The idea of the student-consumer has become more significant since the public-funding cuts that followed the global recession beginning in 2008. The 2013 National Student Survey (NSS) asking students for feedback on whether their degree courses were ‘value for money’ resulted in 29% of them stating it was not (Public Finance 2013). This study coincided with the first group of British students (excluding Scotland) being subjected to the rise in course fees from approximately £3,000/year to up to £9,000/year. The study was criticised for asking the wrong question because it was placing the student solely as a consumer of a product that might be expected to be directly commensurate to some kind of financial gain (for instance, a graduate job), rather than providing a question based on knowledge gain. Hence, the question posed tends to encourage an answer in the negative. Nevertheless, one could argue that for the other 71% it was ‘value for money’, perhaps a higher result than might have been expected with such a significant course fee rise. However, the question itself reflects the trend to express the acquisition of knowledge through exchange-value rather than use-value.

Like academics, students are also subjected to university bureaucracy in the form of surveys that measure their teaching and service satisfaction at the micro and macro level. Mary Beard describes the lack of a response to the questionnaires by students as “survey-fatigue”, and in an article in the BBC news magazine looking at the pros and cons of student surveys, states that the problem with the student survey was that it was seen as an absolute measure of course quality, when actually students can mark courses down for a host of different reasons, such as extensive reading lists (Beard 2013).

However, the latest tuition fee rise and the other cuts in HE funding by the British government, appear under the popular media-generated term of ‘austerity measures’. In 1989 in an article entitled ‘The Management of Austerity in Higher Education: An International Comparison’ Manuel Crespo stated:
The management of higher education in a period of uncertainty, budgetary constraints and real or apprehended decline in enrolments has become a major issue in Western developed countries. Since the late seventies different HE systems have devised strategies to adapt themselves to shrinking resources. (1989: 373)
As the new British Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair hoped that 50% of young people would go to university. He stated that: “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for HE” and “will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them” (Blair 2005). Nevertheless, later he was accused of reneging on this promise with many later media interviews hinging on the semantics of the above statements, especially the “no plans” reference (ibid.). It appeared that the structures and money were not in place in order to support Blair’s wishes. Neither were they at the point of the later 2010 coalition government in Britain, when the current, and greatest, course fee rise occurred. This response to public sector cutbacks in periods of austerity, while not a new money-saving strategy, nevertheless, in the contemporary university – which operates on the guidelines set out in the Jarratt (1985) and Dearing Reports (1997), where HE institutions are expected to operate like corporations – means that today they are evaluated primarily in economic terms.

Concluded in part 3 (upcoming).

Beard, Mary, ‘A Point of View: When Students Answer Back’, BBC News Magazine, (2013), [accessed 6 June 2013]
Blair, Tony, ‘Did Labour mislead over tuition fees?’, Channel 4, (2005), [accessed 7 June 2013]
Crespo, Manuel, ‘The Management of Austerity in Higher Education: An International Comparison’, Higher Education, 18, 4 (1989), 373-395.
Public Finance, ‘Degree Courses ‘Not Value For Money’ Say Third of Students’, Public Finance, (2013), [accessed 6 June 2013]

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

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