Review: The Great University Gamble                                                                                                                             

Andrew  McGettigan   The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education,  Pluto Press, London, 2013. 240pp., £16.99 pb  ISBN 9780745332932

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley    

Perhaps this book will at last get academic Marxists to apply their scholarship to (higher) education. It is ‘pitched at a general readership’ (ix) but this ‘tour through the backrooms of higher education policy’ (185) aims to provide ‘a primer on how money is moving in new ways through the system’ focused on ‘the political economy of institutions in this new environment’ (11).

It follows the stages by which the state prepared for new speculative investment in higher education by private venture capital and other forms of finance capital: from ‘marketisation’ under New Labour, through ‘privatisation’ with the imminent entry of (many more) companies remunerating the investments of their shareholders, alongside banks, hedge funds and bond holders etc., to projected ‘financialisation’, defined as ‘how a public good is placed within a system of accounts via the novel use of data, accounting techniques and political disciplining’ (175).

The end result is a rabid extension of the new state form in which responsibility for delivery is contracted out to agents (schools, colleges and universities, in this case) run to targets, while power to set and inspect the targets contracts to the centre. Simultaneously, a new mixed economy, introduced with the privatization of nationalized industry in the 1980s, mingles the semi-privatised state sector of former public services indiscriminately with a state-subsidised private sector. The state contracts to the minimum function of broker between finance and privatised provision for consumers not citizens.

In HE, new private providers and established charitable institutions changing their corporate forms could ‘extract value’ (i.e. make a profit) from larger numbers of trainee and student consumers if the associated risks could be managed. Tim Leunig, currently seconded from LSE to advise Michael Gove, is cross-referencing UCAS records with data the Student Loans Company (suspended from sale in 2009) receives from HM Revenue and Customs, so that different degrees can be matched for cost against long-run earnings. Unlike a graduate tax, this would create a differentiated market in which students/graduates would be the unit of account. ‘Each year’s new loans could be sold to a “special purpose vehicle” which could slice or segment the loan book into marketable products for investors.’ (182)

This leads to a bizarre world, operating 30 years in the future, when the government expects two thirds of the current crop of student loans to be recovered – abandoning the other third! (£3.3b of an annual outlay projected by Willetts for 2014/15 at £14b of which £10b is loans for fees and maintenance.) This ‘gamble involves running the risk of sub-prime degrees’ (185) but if, on the other hand, ‘student numbers decline so that fewer loans are issued there would be a substantial saving’ (171). For True Believers in ‘choice and competition’ like Willetts and Gove, whichever or whatever result is the Will of the Market.

For England’s universities this is ‘a huge gamble… not a controlled experiment.’ (6) ‘The gamble is that the creative destruction of mass higher education as currently provided will be worth it in the longer run.’ (185) The results are nevertheless predictable: ‘we should expect a diminution in the number of universities in England, whether through merger or collapse, and prospective students are likely to soon face less choice as to where and what they study.’ (6) English higher education is ‘on the cusp of a transformation’ akin to the country’s football 20 years ago ‘when the breakaway Premier League and Sky TV money combined with the regulatory arbitrage of corporate restructuring to reroute the financial circuits of the game’ and ‘a new elite cemented its position … while the majority of institutions will be left to scrap in a new market swamped with cheap degree providers’ (ix).

What is to be done about this? ‘In the short-term, political activity and organization needs to be reactive, preventing the unfettered advent of any primary legislation’ (since the whole White Paper has been winged through on the hoof). ‘Any worthwhile alternative also involves a longer range struggle: one that makes the case and fights for mass higher education not as “value for money” but as a quality commitment to the population defined as whoever can benefit. It argues for a breadth of provision both in terms of subjects offered but also in terms of the content of those subjects, contesting the demand-led homogenization of education and maintaining critical and advanced content… We must seek more participative provision, structures and institutions.’ (186-7)

Apart from in the feudal guilds of Oxbridge scholars, the pass has too often been sold. Barely mentioned in the White Paper, academics, squeezed between the demands of student-consumers and pressures from management, have ‘failed to properly defend their profession… Collegiality has been displaced by corporatism.’ Worse, universities and colleges face a loss of public support ‘in so far as commercial imperatives and market positioning are seen to dovetail with the government’s agenda of polarization, stratification and the sorting of individuals.’ The ‘endemic resentments that befoul education’ through its implication in the reproduction of privilege ‘threaten to erupt under these pressures.’ (ibid)

McGettigan looks to the university governance structures proposed by von Prondzynski in Scotland for some safeguard against the depredations he delineates. He does not cover research, which is already playing a large part as some universities serve ‘the knowledge economy’ through growing medico-industrial complexes. Nor does he consider the increasingly alienated student experience in which, to adapt the 1844 Manuscripts, learning is ‘external to the learner’ and not freely undertaken so that the learner does not ‘affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind… Such learning does not satisfy a need: it is coerced, forced, and a means to satisfy needs external to it… It is a loss of self.’

The ‘Lost Generations’ of current and future students need a guide to explain what is occurring. Marxist academics can contribute to McGettigan’s ground-breaking analysis as well as to the resistance to its consequences.

30 April 2013

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