On market forces in higher education

The media coverage of my paper for HEPI Fairer Funding: the case for a graduate levy has been widespread and the reactions surprisingly favourable. While there haven’t been many people getting out the bunting and ticker tape, many people seem to agree that it is an interesting proposal and it is right and timely to address the question of employer contributions to the cost of higher education. 

The most common complaint, however, appears to be to deny that market forces have any place in higher education. One tweet read:

You’ve made the fundamental mistake of assuming that market forces can be made to operate efficiently in HE. There’s no evidence of that at all.


(I won’t name the author (although you can find it on Twitter), because I haven’t asked his permission to quote him and his only right of reply will be in the comments below or back on Twitter).

Market forces exist whether we like it or not. It is not a choice whether to let them in to higher education. There were market forces even in the days of full grants, no fees and low student numbers. Remember how polytechnics were seen as ‘a lower quality product’? That wasn’t fact. It was market forces – the interplay of demand and supply creating their own ‘truths’.

Only Canute would try to defy market forces in a capitalist economy (which, like it or not, is what we have), but that doesn’t mean we let those forces decide the market. Market forces are amoral. It is the way we set up the rules of the market that imprints our values on them.

To talk of market forces operating ‘efficiently’ implies that those forces know what they’re doing. They don’t. They are more like the forces of evolution by natural selection, driving changes without mercy or meaning.

We need to supply the mercy and meaning.

At the moment the market in higher education is a fabricated and self-destructive one, setting the interests of students against those of taxpayers and universities, and ignoring how the money actually enters the system. My proposal acknowledges who the ‘customers’ actually are (employers and taxpayers) and values the partnership between unis and students, directing change in the direction we want.

Would my proposal be 100% efficient at delivering the desired outcomes? No, of course not. But it is easier to head in a direction with the tide helping you along than to try to swim against it or to try to plan a course without recognising that the tide is likely to overwhelm your plans.

I’m no neo-liberal, but I like to think I’m economically realistic and, like a sailor who uses the winds but doesn’t control them, I want to steer a course that protects the values of HE that I’m sure most people in society – and particularly in the higher education sector – share.

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