The Marketplace of Ideas: How does the Commodification of Higher Education affect Freedom of Information?

Liberalisation. Neoliberalism. Privatisation. Managerialism.

Whichever terms one uses to describe recent phenomena in education, it is clear that the landscape is changing. In the United States, the student loans crisis and the rapid growth of the for-profit education sector have garnered widespread media and political attention. Here in the UK, the introduction of student fees south of the border has been highly controversial, as has the increasing reliance on external partnerships to generate research funding. I can’t address all of these issues at length within this post, but instead want to focus on the recent debate over whether universities should be subject to freedom of information (FOI) legislation. That this debate is even taking place demonstrates the shift towards marketisation and the increasing importance of commercial activity within the modern university.

In the Times Higher Education article, Chris Cobb argued that FOI undermines competitive practices. He reasoned that if universities were included in Schedule 1 of the Act due to the high level of public funding received, then this arrangement needs to be re-examined now that public funding has been reduced and the private sector plays a larger role. Moreover, private companies can make information requests to gather intelligence about university operations or to create mailing lists to be sold for profit. Although the s.43 exemption allows for withholding information if it is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any party, Cobb argued that savvy requesters are still able to eke out information that harms the university’s competitive standing. His argument is based on the assertion that universities are not public authorities and should not be treated as such under FOI if they are to remain competitive in an international market.

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel countered this argument, noting that most people appear to be in favour of FOI until if affects them. He listed a number of cases in which FOI legislation has helped to shed light on dubious practices in universities, including boosting marks to increase pass rates and the use of zero-hours contracts for university staff. The latter seems particularly relevant in light of recent stories about the conditions endured by FE lecturers on precarious contracts. Frankel concluded that FOI is important in ensuring accountability and maintaining public trust.

Alice Bell wrote a response in which she detailed her own experiences of trying to obtain information under the FOIA. She wanted to know more about Cambridge University’s collaborative research with Shell, but was refused access to the information she requested as disclosure would have put the University in a “commercially disadvantageous” position. The University went on to explain that due to the reduction in public funding, it needed to diversify its funding sources and therefore must maintain commercial confidentiality to remain competitive.

In order to understand this debate, we need to consider some fundamental questions regarding the nature and value of higher education. Cobb’s argument appears to be based on an understanding of higher education as a private or individual good. In this view, students are consumers in an educational marketplace who must choose which institution is the best investment for their own futures. This way of thinking helps to contribute to the reduction in public expenditure on education, meaning that universities must continue to compete with one another for an ever-shrinking pool of funding. External partnerships can help to bring in more funding, but it means that universities (and departments within universities) become more commercially driven and compelled to operate more like businesses.

The debate over whether or not universities should be subject to FOI is really about the role that universities play in society. In recent decades, we have been encouraged to think of education as an individual good, but should we accept this? Is education not a social good, meant to enhance not just the career prospects of individuals, but also society as a whole through research and teaching? I argue that universities need to subject to FOI, not only to follow the ‘public pound’ or to ensure that workers are treated fairly, but because of the implications of accepting that universities are now businesses. To say that universities should no longer be covered by FOI legislation so that they can remain commercially competitive is to accept the commodification of higher education, but these neoliberal developments can and should be challenged.

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