The Marketisation of Education

The Marketisation of Education - by Connor Veighey

When we think of university life and our student years we typically envision an exciting new stage in our lives – free from the stiff regiment of school and able to take more responsibility over our own lives without parental oversight. Though nervous and unsure of what the next number of years will hold, a new student on their first day will likely be looking forward to meeting lots of new friends, getting involved with all of the clubs, societies and experiences that university has to offer and developing a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re most passionate about.

This is, however, little more than an idealistic dream considering the wellbeing crisis on our campuses. A recent study by NUS-USI reported 50% rise in deaths by suicide among students in England and Wales in the last ten years. Even where the result isn’t as extreme, still we’re witnessing a 50% increase in the demand for mental health services. This problem has continued to go untreated as funding is repeatedly slashed in the endless move to drive up profits, for example 14 of Britain’s top universities showed trends of increasing demand for counselling services yet simultaneously decreasing funding for these services between 2006/7 and 2011/12.

There is little doubt that an individual’s wellbeing is in many cases environmentally influenced and so in taking the university as the primary environment with which the student interacts, and thus asserting that the particular nature of this relationship has significant bearing on the student and their wellbeing, we can see this crisis not as some naturally occurring phenomenon but one that is produced through a series of policy decisions and that therefore may be solved through alternative policies.

In understanding the nature of the modern university, we can sort the influencing factors into three broad and interconnected categories: financial pressures, the pressure to excel academically and the breakdown of community.

Financial pressure is in of itself a significant factor in influencing wellbeing, with 39% of surveyed students citing it as a factor in their mental health1, in part due to direct consequences such as the accruement of debt and subsequent decades of reduced potential revenue. However, the costs associated with studying that are in addition to fees – such as rent, household bills, living, study materials, transport etc. – have much further reaching implications, for example in the requirement for the student to seek employment. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with a student having a part-time job alongside their studies, indeed this can be extremely beneficial to their overall development, but it is the necessity of work and to work increasingly long hours that should be of concern. This is due to it’s impairment on academic performance - as the student is able to dedicate less time to studying, the additional stresses associated with balancing an increasing workload and, finally a breakdown in the community aspect of university. This latter point is in part due to the lack of time the student has to engage in extra-curricular activities such as clubs and societies based on their interests or simply socialising with their peers.  Additionally, the cost of rent (in excess of £400 in many instances) has led to the, “attenuation of the residential idea of the university” as the number of students choosing to live with their parents more than doubled from 1988 to 2013 and nearly 8 in 10 of these citing financial concerns as their main reason for doing so.

The ideology of marketisation must be understood as being supported culturally. Students are encouraged to adopt the character of the self-made, self-sacrificing entrepreneur as their identities are recast in terms of their relation to the capitalist market. This is related to the pressure to excel academically and idolised as a means of being a free and self-reliant individual, but I counter that one is not free as long as one is financially indebted, forced to work outside of their choosing and unable to seek independent living. Additionally, one is not free if their identity has been reduced to a consumer or product and they suffer the accompanying pathologies. These pathologies include a twin sense of chronic anomie and egoism, whereby students feel increasingly disconnected from a university community which favours a crude individualism and competition. Durkheim attributed each of these pathologies – which are demonstrated practically through manifestations of poor mental health, such conditions as anxiety and depression - to the question of why the suicide rate rose in times of prosperity, ground-breaking in face of the conventional wisdom that the misery of poverty was responsible for people committing suicide.  

Marketisation hasn’t only affected students but staff as well who have faced both casualisation of their working practices and continual pressures to generate ever-greater wealth for their employer. This was seen most recently in the proposed changes to the superannuation scheme but is also reflected in a long-running instrumentalist trend that involves academics researching the areas of greatest profitability and which are most attractive to external investors, rather than necessarily the greatest social good – this is what is truly meant by a university meeting the needs of a capitalist market society.

Though this has been a very brief overview, we can see the university as a perfect microcosm for the ideological path that our society is on. Where we may view a university as an institution and a community with a social purpose – the personal development and emancipation of individuals through education and social relations – it has been transformed into little more than an alienating and pathological engine for wealth-production. Given the dialectical relationship between an individual and their sense of person-hood and well-being, we can conclude that an all-encompassing structural approach, a root and branch strategy, is required in order to adequately address the crisis in well-being among students. Our task is therefore to build a coalition that stretches across students and staff, unions and universities, charities and government with the goal of establishing an association in which the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each.