Higher education is dominated by a market


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

Whether or not any of us really think about it, as college students, we all grew up around certain assumptions about what higher education is. Even if we may not accept all of them, we are certainly familiar with them.

The ideas that the purpose behind education is to get a good job, that college will entail a financial burden and that budget cuts will be the norm are all fixtures of this system.

It is important to see all these as occurring as part of a belief system that has taken hold of many sectors of society, including higher education. A number of experts and educators refer to this as neoliberalism.

Though it has a number of definitions, neoliberalism is generally thought of as a philosophy that heavily promotes markets and market values.

This way of thinking has had a substantial impact on higher education as universities increasingly adopt corporate models.

A number of trends illustrate this phenomenon, though perhaps none quite as well as the growth of administrative functions at universities. The number of administrators has grown substantially in the past few decades. A February 2014 study by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting showed

American universities have increased the number of administrators  far more than they have increased academic positions.

Beyond the corporatization of universities is a related but still distinct problem. The market-based system has changed the purpose of higher education.

Michael Behrent, president of the university chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that universities have long been  thought to have a larger social mission. Promoting democratic ideals and prompting critical discussion are an integral part of the university’s function.

However, the neoliberal program is skeptical, if not outright opposed, to the idea of public goods. The private sector is seen to embody all that is worthwhile and productive, while public interests are often seen as being wasteful and unaccountable.

As such, this agenda has prompted a situation in which public institutions must perpetually justify their existence. Typically, that is achieved by reference to performance metrics and efforts at cost-cutting and efficiency improvements.

I do not oppose markets altogether and do think they have a place in society. However, a market should only be valued for the benefits they may produce and not as ends unto themselves. To venerate  markets to the exclusion of all other considerations is a terrible mistake.

Even more than market supremacy, what troubles me most about these developments is the way they narrow the discourse around higher education.

When budget cuts are the norm, and education is seen as largely economic, bold discussion about the direction of education in this country is quashed.

Why not have free higher education for all qualifying citizens? Great, who’s going to pay for it? Some European countries have done this, but it seems a strange idea to bring up in America.

I am not necessarily endorsing free higher education, but I would love to have a conversation where the idea could be brought up without facing immediate rejection. Only a free, broad discussion on substantive issues in higher education will allow for meaningful reform.

This is a discussion that affects us all, and whatever your opinion happens to be, engagement on these issues is vital.

Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.