In their foreword to the predictably dismaying Higher Education White Paper, Vince Cable and David Willetts deploy the standard language of the marketplace: the Higher Education Funding Council for England will take on ‘a major new role as a consumer champion’; ‘universities will be under competitive pressure to provide better quality and lower cost’ because they’ll be ‘responding to student demand’.[*] Any thought that academics might prefer to collaborate rather than compete as their sense of being under siege grows more desperate is swept aside by the dogma that everything is automatically improved by the Midas touch of competition. It’s true that students have always competed for places and degrees, universities for the ‘best’ students, researchers for funding and so on, and maybe some of them have been invigorated more by the competition than by any real liking for the subjects they’re studying. But maybe competition isn’t so much a good thing as an unfortunate consequence of demand for limited resources outstripping supply. Limiting the resources even further, as the government plans to do, will certainly lead to more of it. Whether or not that leads in turn to improvements in higher education is another matter.
LRB 14 July 2011 | PDF Download