I thought a quick entry, because the last few days have been a bit busy, but I want to make sure to update this somewhat regularly, or whats the point? When we left our story I promised to be highly incendiary and talk about how we all collude to create the societal problems that have lead to our problematic education system. Don’t fear, I haven’t abandoned that, but with only a little time, and a currently fading brain I thought I would tackle a short topic that has been really bugging me. Mostly because I don’t understand.
The themes of the protests about cuts to the public sector, and specifically higher ed have been mostly focused on tuition fees. Now, I think it is an important issue that needs to be addressed, but it hides the much deeper and more dangerous fact of the changes proposed by the Browne Report: the commodification of education. This is something being discussed amongst a specific group of academics, but doesn’t seem to have reached the public sphere in a clear way. For those of you who aren’t total geeks, commodification is the process of making something into a good (item) that has a specific monetary value, that can be bought and sold like a jug of milk or a share in a company. Increasingly, through the spread of neo-liberalism, we are commodifying things that we previously had a hard time assigning value (like education, culture, art etc). The thing about commodification, to be fair, is that it is also about bureaucracy. The assigning of value to know how much to apportion (give out) based on how much good each resource can do for the most people (basic utilitarianism) is important when there are not enough resources to do everything everyone wants to do and we have to find some system for figuring out the way to accommodate the most people in the most fair way possible. That usually means quantification (counting things). Quantification, in any capitalist system will invariably lead to commodification, because if it can be measured, it can be assigned an exchange value (Marx) and traded/ bought and sold (three chickens for your cow, or $50K for a year at Harvard). The problem is the disconnect between quantification and the intangible results of something like an education. It is hard to find a systematic value for something like education, or access to art, or access to outside space free of other people and pollution because it has different results for different people over time.
So, institutions are trying to get the most money they can, to fund research, to include students who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend, or wouldn’t know to apply, to give the best resources to help teachers impart knowledge, to entice good teachers to come to that institution and to create links with the rest of the world. That all seems to make sense generally. But this is the rub: Institutions, once education is commodified, recognise that one of the main ways they can add value to their particular ‘brand’ of good is to increase the revenue stream to increase the value of the ‘product’ they can offer. This leads to one of two things- selling out, or selling up (some conflate the two, but I disagree). What I mean by selling up is to make an institution increasingly elite by increasing the price of a particular education and using the funds to actually make that ‘product’ more valuable (both because people perceive it as more valuable based on the price, but also because of the aforementioned marshalling of resources that then are able to improve the quality of eduction). This is what people focus on when talking about fees and is an important argument.
What I don’t understand though, is that people seem to be ignoring the connection between commodification and selling out. A couple months ago Howard Davies was forced to resign from the LSE because of the institution’s involvement with the Libyan government and misconduct in a previously awarded PhD. I would say that this is the direct result of the same processes we are talking about with commodification. The LSE is one of the best higher ed institutions in the UK for bringing in outside funds, beyond tuition fees and public sector funding. They were criticised for talking money from dodgy sources, but at the point when education becomes a competitive market, and institutions are required to find funds in order to market and add value to their ‘product’, in fact, when an intangible item like an education becomes a ‘product’ at all, it would seem that a race to the bottom is a bit inevitable. To blame the institutions, and the decision makers in them, for attempting to navigate as successfully as possible, a system which encourages (if not requires) that specific behaviour to survive/ prosper/ offer the best education they can, it seems a little unfair and also illogical. (on a separate note, blaming the head of a college for engaging in the same behaviour as heads of state also seems a little illogical and unfair, but then I guess life isn’t so there we go)
I have been really confused why those lobbying to avoid the (seemingly) inevitable results of a system, while also decrying a really unfortunate incident for academia generally would not connect the two, when they have the same causal determinant.
Commodifying intangibles, even if it could be positive in some way is extremely problematic. Commodifying education is more so, especially when we have clear evidence of the likely outcome, which all agree is pretty negative, for academia and for the role that it can and should play in society. I don’t have a solution to offer (I know, a bit pants really, point out a problem without offering an alternative), but I do think we should be clear on exactly what the problems are. Higher tuition fees suck, but are the result of a much deeper, larger problem that is being ignored.