The impact on social justice of the privatisation of higher education: a UK case study.

Year: 2019

Author: Boden, Rebecca

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The impact on social justice of the privatisation of higher education: a UK case study.

The entry of private, for-profit providers into the provision of formerly state-services such as education and the increasing financialisation of not-for-profit institutions are accelerating global phenomena. Together, these constitute a creeping privatisation of higher education that challenge social justice for two reasons. First, private providers price their services above cost in order to generate a profit and financialised not-for-profits tend to prioritise revenue above other considerations. This has financial consequences for the citizens paying for the services, whether directly or indirectly through taxation. Second, aspects of educational provision such as curricula, pedagogies and student access are influenced by market imperatives to either control cost or produce a marketable product for profit. As such, privatisation may undermine pro-social justice efforts in educational systems.

Privatisation of higher education in the UK has occurred through three principal routes.

1. The unbundling of university services such as cleaning, catering, student accommodation or preparatory courses.
2. Either the formal transfer of institutions to the private sector or, more frequently, the increasing financialisation of existing not-for-profit institutions such that, despite being formally not-for-profit, they in nearly every sense emulate for-profit competitors.
3. The establishment and development of numerous for-profit private providers.

This paper first maps and analyses the dynamics of privatisation in the UK. I argue that the principal enabler of privatisation is the financialisation of the sector – the finance tail is now wagging the university dog. Aspects of financialisation include increasing funding pressures combined with the auditing of performance against targets, and the routing of funding for teaching via the student fees system. Significant regulatory reform has enabled and facilitated this process.

I then consider the possible adverse consequences of this privatisation in terms of student participation, student debt, teaching practices and standards, academic identities and the profile of universities in terms of subject areas and research work.

The paper draws extensively on publicly available evidence of unbundling, institutional transition and new formations. It also reflects on available data on student participation, debt, teaching practices, academic identities and the developing disciplinary profiles of universities.

Overall, the paper provides a comprehensive overview of how these complex changes are occurring and gives some conceptual understanding of how they may be affecting the capacity of higher education to work with and within a social justice agenda.