Sunday, 22 March 2015

Neoliberalism and the Death of Universal Education

Over the past few years we’ve seen university become increasingly marketised. Students are starting to pay for their own education, rather than have it funded by government. As it stands, this is still a fairly regulated market. Students almost all go through the official loans system, few providers enter or leave the market, and all courses cost the same. Competition for students is thus based mainly on location and academic prestige, with the fees cap low enough to discourage much price competition. This however seems to me like it may well change in the future. The fees cap is likely to be removed at some point (as per the Browne review), and we may well see new firms entering the market. Under such a system universities may well become increasingly specialised. In the face of extreme market forces, they could focus on particular niches to exploit their comparative advantage. Not all students want the same type of education, and that’s completely ok, a market based system is perfectly placed to provide this. The customer is always right, and at these prices the student is one hell of a customer. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

The opportunities offered to and constraints imposed on students could vary between institutions. In the States, there are plenty of colleges with strict honour codes for those who desire it. Mitt Romney attended the largest, Brigham Young University. Mormon teachings are at the core of its mission, and as such it enforces chastity, a strict dress code, abstinence, attendance at church and a prohibition on foul language. This code is both official and unofficial. Students who sort themselves into such a place have chosen to live by it, and being surrounded by like minded people amplifies the effect.

This puts me in mind of the safe space debate currently occurring on campuses. There is a demand for restrictions on speech and behaviour that is not currently being met by our educational institutions. Would students agitating for it vote with their wallets in future if they had an option? Why not create an entire university that is safe? For chastity, read any form of sexual morality that takes your fancy. For dress code, why not ban offensive shirts? Lad culture could be curtailed by prohibiting the male organisations that perpetuate it, let’s ban fraternities and sports teams, or at least heavily regulate them. Instead of church attendance, let’s require all students to attend mandatory workshops. Students shouldn’t have to hear language and music they dislike, so let’s ban that while we’re at it. Again, this isn’t purely an official prohibition, institutions like this would attract people who want to go there, the people sadly triggered by many elements of more mainstream education, and the social norms that developed there would be more suited to them.

Equally, some universities may well choose to present themselves in the opposite way. How about a place for students who hate all this social justice stuff? A university which was an explicitly ‘Dangerous Space’? Students could be encouraged to compete for who could be the most offensive. All staff members could wear t-shirts with misogynistic slogans on them. Compulsory internet harassment lessons on a Sunday morning. Let’s subsidise the student bar and hand out free roofies to anyone who comes in. That’ll show the PC brigade!

Now let’s assume for a moment that the main social function of university is signalling. The actual facts that you learn aren’t especially important, just the fact that you were capable of learning them. There is a large literature out there on this model, but I’ll quickly explain it here for those of you unfamiliar. Everyone knows the vast majority of what you learn on a typical university course isn’t particularly useful. History grads and English grads go for the same graduate jobs, in spite of there being little overlap in what they have learned. Students cheer when classes are cancelled, despite paying for those very classes to happen. At a typical university, it would be almost comically easy to attend every lecture without ever paying a penny in tuition, and yet nobody does. The most parsimonious explanation for all this is that what you’re actually paying for isn’t the education, merely the signal that you were capable of getting through it.

If we accept that this is the case, why not fit form to function a little more effectively? We can deal with the signalling function via a decent battery of IQ tests spaced out throughout the course, and maybe the odd 9am taking of attendance to show at least some level of commitment. Once we’ve done this we’ve got a lot of time and money to play with. Sure, we could simply drive down costs and reduce the course length, but that’s no fun at all. That this doesn’t happen suggests the possibility there there may be something more here. Maybe young people really want a licence to spend three years of their lives being shielded from the real world. Drinking, partying and sleeping in until midday, while mummy and daddy are still inexplicably proud of us. Many people will talk about their time at university as the best of their lives, and one last blowout before the real world may well serve a worthwhile social function. So let’s speculate as to what we could do to help them enjoy themselves.

Our typical progressive student imagined above may well find aspects of a more typical lecture course upsetting. Too many microaggressions, macroaggressions and cishetwhitemen. If we're not careful, somebody may invalidate their very real lived experiences, and cause them actual harm. Not to worry, we can scrap the lectures. But what do we replace them with? Humans need some sort of structure and ritual in our lives, otherwise what’s the point. Thankfully I’ve found a solution. For the student who simply can’t cope with the real world, instead we have the ultimate safe space, “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

I’m not saying this solution is perfect, but it’s not obviously worse than what we have now. Keeping students with competing political views together is clearly causing conflict and upsetting a lot of them. Nobody seems particularly to be learning from this diversity of opinion, instead we have needless petty fights over what universal code of behaviour should be in place. What is there was no universal code at all. Those who want a diverse body of opinion among their fellow students can go somewhere that has it, and those who want to behave like animals can find somewhere they are free to do so. As so often, neoliberalism finds itself extremely well suited to the goals of social justice. A patchwork education system may be the answer.

In New York we can see the beginnings of just such a system. A preschool for those of us who find the real world just a bit too difficult. Starting at $333 it’s a snip compared to more mainstream education, and if I’m right about where things are going it’s likely to be a roaring success. Give it a few tweaks, upscale and bolt on some intelligence testing and it's good to go. A hundred years from now could Preschool Mastermind be up there with Cambridge, Harvard and MIT?


  1. "Our typical progressive student imagined above may well find aspects of a more typical lecture course upsetting. Too many microaggressions, macroaggressions and cishetwhitemen."

    Oh, I see what you were gathering all that straw for.

  2. Fair point. I doubt there are a huge number of people who would be that extreme. But to tone it down a bit, would universities separated along ideological lines be better suited to marginalised voices?