The UK’s Universities: Has the “Market Mentality” Prejudiced Academic Standards?

If you’ve been considering taking a degree course, apply now to the institution of your choice. You’ll have, it seems, an excellent chance of being accepted. According to Sean Coughlin, the BBC News Education correspondent, on 14th August, it’s a “buyer’s market” in which universities “are competing to attract students” He quotes UCAS (The University & Colleges Admissions Service) statistics indicating that 396,990 students have so far been enrolled for degree courses – “an increase of 3% on 2013”. This is despite the fact that “for the third successive year, the A* and A level exam grades have fallen slightly – down from 26.3% to 26%”. A full-page analysis in the “Sunday Times” on 17th August predicted that, due to extra Government funding, a total of 500,000 university places will be available for the imminent Academic Year 2014/15. These have to be filled somehow – hence many universities “adopting marketing techniques more usually associated with fitness gyms and hairdressers”, such as Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales, offering £200 to current students who “recommend a friend”. Such ploys have been depicted, however, by Paul Temple, a Higher Education expert at the Institution of Education in London as “signs of desperation” and as reducing (he told the Sunday Times) “one of the most important decisions the potential student will ever make” to the category of “an ordinary consumer purchase”.

This is an opinion clearly shared by Liz Lawrence, the President of the University and College union (UCU). The “market mentality” now prevalent in Britain, she asserts, makes students think “I’ve paid my £9.000. Where’s my 2:1 degree?”. She considers that, in many cases, universities sell courses to students with the message that, once they’ve obtained their qualification, they’ll be sure of obtaining a “well-paid graduate job”. In reality, this will  “depend on factors which can’t really be predicted three years ahead, such as employment opportunities and the state of the country’s economy. The UCU is “pleased that getting degrees helps people  with their lives and advances their careers”, but also believes that education is also about “ the development of citizens for a democratic society”. It sympathizes with concerns expressed by the National Union of Students (NUS) regarding “over-large classes and the squeezing of the tuition bubble” at some universities. Lawrence acknowledges that “There are legitimate points that students are raising about the amount of tuition they are getting and particularly the lack of opportunities to access individual help from tutors when they need it”. She moreover frets over whether the higher tuition fees are a deterrent for young people  “from circumstances where there’s no tradition of going into Higher Education”. This is an issue highlighted by the commentator Will Hutton in his “Observer” column on 17th August: “In raw numbers” (he wrote), in 2013, 11,695 students from the most advantaged social milieu entered the, top 13 universities but only 1,232 from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – an almost tenfold difference”. Additional evidence of this considerable disparity has emerged from a study conducted by the “Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC)” published on August 28th. It concluded ( reported the Guardian’s political correspondent, Andrew Sparrow) that Britain is “deeply elitist” because people educated at public schools and Oxbridge (Oxford & Cambridge Universities) “dominate jobs at the top of government, the civil service, the judiciary, the media, business and the creative industries”.

The UCU fears that  a system which clearly favours the “elite” could be further entrenched by a prospective government scheme to change the current student loan arrangement. If this is implemented, universities prepared to share with the Treasury the risk of their graduates not repaying the debts for their education will be allowed to charge higher fees. The response to this suggestion by the UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt on July 29th was that “Politicians should be prioritising ways to make it easier for people to afford university” instead of making it even more expensive. The UCU also points out on its website that 53% of adults questioned as part of the  SMCPC investigation “supported the idea of students from lower income families being charged a lower tuition fee” than their better-off counterparts.

Exactly how universities are financed is a major issue for the UCU. In the run-up to the next General Election on 7th May 2015, emphasizes Liz Lawrence, the union will be advocating improved and more stable funding for Further & Higher Education “because universities need to plan over a period of years things like building work, staff investment programmes and training”. The UCU has a membership of around 120,000 and “is recognised by nearly all Britain’s universities”, who thereby work within the “national bargaining machinery”. Among UCU’s priorities are campaigns to “stamp out casual and zero-hour contracts (which, it maintains, currently apply to 24,000 lecturers)” and to close the “gender pay gap” in the sector. It doesn’t hesitate to take industrial action if it feels this is the only option available. It has participated (on 31st October 2013) along with two other trade unions (Unison & Unite) in a one-day strike for more pay and only suspended a “marking boycott of university students’ work in the UK” scheduled to begin on 28th April after its members “ overwhelmingly voted to accept a 2% pay offer from the employers”. It belongs to “Education International” because “ lecturers, teachers and researchers throughout the world face common issues like academic freedom, inspection performance management and excessive workloads”, as well  as having “a shared commitment to education as a force for a better society”.

A recent UCU survey has indicated that Higher Education staff in the UK “are more stressed than the general British working population” Due to the “great expansion in student numbers” and the “huge increase in tuition fees”(declared UCU spokesman Stephen Court), there is “growing pressure on academics to deliver and to be constantly accessible through electronic media. For them, there is a sense that the job is never finished”.


Filed under: Society | Posted on September 12th, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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