Tag Archives: for-profit education

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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Conservative Plan to Allow State-Funded For-Profits

After following moves to privatise public education in the United States and the United Kingdom for the past few years, I was not surprised to read of the latest plan from the UK’s Conservative Party. Steve Baker MP is developing a plan that would allow parents to operate free schools and pay themselves dividends with any leftover funds from the annual budget. Currently, free schools are state-funded and operators are not permitted to run them on a for-profit basis.

Remarkably, Baker does not take issue with people earning a profit from public services. He says, “To me, profit is just recognition of the fact that you are serving society, as long as that profit is made fairly without force or deception.” Whilst this might seem reasonable on the surface, the ambiguities in his argument are cause for concern. For-profits benefit from exploiting information asymmetries, and I question whether the public would be able to adequately monitor these schools to ensure that profits are being made fairly once they are out of local authority control.

Mr. Baker seems to believe that the potential to earn a profit could incentivise parents to run schools. However, one needs to consider how a profit motive can distort the educational mission of schools, leading to cut corners or outright fraud. Any “extras” that are not protected by mandates, such as libraries, additional learning resources, or after school programs, could easily be seen as barriers to profit by operators.

Furthermore, for all the emphasis that Baker and his Tory colleagues place on “parents,” it is unclear who, exactly, would be responsible for running these for-profit schools. Whilst groups of parents are allowed to operate free schools, charities and businesses are allowed to do so as well. Although Baker has clearly attempted to downplay the potential role of the private sector by highlighting the role of parents, he also claimed, “(o)ne of the questions we have to answer is how do you incentivise people to set up and run excellent schools for disadvantaged children?” (emphasis added). So it appears that this for-profit experiment will be targeted towards children from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than all children. Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty and the reasons why some parents struggle to support their children, this plan would open the door for private companies looking to make a profit from the children most in need of support. Sounds familiar.

Although the Telegraph article concluded with doubts as to whether this plan will ever be implemented, it does demonstrate a remarkable misunderstanding of the role of our public schools and the value of education more broadly. Free market education reformers always carefully choose their words to make it appear that their plans are child and community-centred, but it does not take long to find the holes in their arguments. Instead of questioning how to incentivise private individuals to run schools, we need to question why the politicians who have been elected to act in the public interest are shirking their responsibilities.

I think it’s time to write Mr. Baker a letter. Or perhaps send him a copy of every book Diane Ravitch has written.