Worlds of Education

Academic capitalism and the marketisation of United Kingdom Universities

published 10 April 2018 updated 10 April 2018

By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham

Staff in the UK’s ‘older universities’ are currently in a significant industrial dispute to defend their pensions. At the time of writing members of the University and College Union (UCU) have taken 14 days strike action, and are currently balloting on whether to accept or reject a revised offer from the employers. The aim of the campaign is to defend the current ‘Defined Benefits’ pension (with pensions calculated according to salary and years of service), and to reject the employers’ attempts to impose a ‘Defined Contributions’ scheme in which pension payments will be based on the performance of pension investments on the financial markets.

The dispute is obviously focused on defending the attacks on university workers’ pensions, but it must also been seen as part of a wider campaign against the privatisation and marketisation of higher education.

Higher education in the UK has long been recognised as being in the vanguard of the global movement to transform universities from public institutions providing a public good into quasi-commercial organisations in which the development of human capital and intellectual property are the principal objectives. As long ago as 1997 Slaughter and Leslie’s study of higher education in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia concluded that ‘Academic Capitalism’ (the extent to which higher education was being driven by market imperatives) was at its most developed in the UK.

However, since Slaughter and Leslie’s research, the drive towards the marketisaton of the UK higher education sector has intensified. This was most clearly indicated by the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, and since then, the introduction of ‘full cost’ fees from September  2012 (although this position now looks different in different parts of the UK). At the same time the government has sought to de-regulate the supply of university places by removing caps on student numbers and allowing a free-for-all in student recruitment with the explicit intention of subjecting universities to the ‘discipline’ of market forces. Most recently the government has introduced a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which grades teaching quality across institutions. Government plans to link fee increases to TEF performance were thwarted by the parliament, but the threat of such a development remains.

In research terms parallel pressures are discernible. Limited public funding of research was already evident long before the 2008 economic crisis, but since that time public support for research in universities has deteriorated. University researchers are under considerable pressure to make good the shortfall in public investment and so private sector funding increasingly substitutes for government money.  The inevitable result is that research agendas are driven by commercial imperatives and the preoccupations of private philanthropists.  Increasingly it is commercial interests that frame the questions that university researchers have to answer.

The consequence of all these developments is a progressive undermining of academic freedom as increased managerial control over both teaching and research increasingly circumscribes how workers in universities are able to determine what they do and how they do it.

It is in this context that the struggle by UCU members to defend their pensions must be seen.  The drive by the employers to a market-based pension scheme is a logical, if backwards, step in a system driven by market imperatives. In a competitive market for universities the employers’ original proposal was intended to transfer all pension risk to individual workers. As in so many other aspects of the neoliberal economy it is workers who are being asked to carry the insecurity of unstable markets. University employees who already face huge precarity in their working lives, would be expected to endure similar insecurity in their retirement.

At the time of writing united action by union members has already forced the employers to retreat from their original proposals - although it remains to be seen what the final outcome will be. What is clear is that the fight to resist the marketisation of university workers’ pensions has also opened up a much wider challenge to the marketisation of higher education itself. What began as an initial mobilisation against pension cuts has already morphed into a much broader campaign which is asking more challenging questions of the new ‘entrepreneurial university’. UCU members have discovered the power of collective action and recognise that if they are to realise the aspirations of a public university system providing a public good then their campaigning must continue however the pension dispute is resolved.

For a more detailed discussion of how the pension dispute is linked to HE marketization in UK universities readers are directed to ‘ The pensions dispute and the marketization of Higher Education’ by John Holmwood and Gurminder K Bhambra

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