Thursday, 3 November 2011

The commodification of higher education has arrived

Data last week revealed that applications to university have, thus far, decreased this year following the introduction of £9000 fees.  Though any conclusion drawn at this stage should consider that the application cycle is far from closing, the figures are none the less damning.

The figures reveal that applications are down 9% overall.  But for medicine, dentistry and top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, only 0.8%.  Two things could be at work to explain this uneven drop; the deadline for medicine, dentistry and Oxbridge passed on 15th  A similar drop will eventually be revealed in applications to other courses, it’s simply a case that people are holding back in submitting applications. October and a very similar number of people chose to apply this year.  The variance is, perhaps, negligible.

This makes little sense for two reasons; for all course and especially the highly competitive medicine and dentistry, there is a backlog of those that did not succeed in getting on their chosen course in the last few years.  That culminates in a backlog of applicants, plus the latest round of new applicants, in a position to apply for courses this year.  That the figures have dropped at all, when the backlog has aggregated to its largest for many years, would suggest that demand has dropped more than the figures suggest. 

Second, in the extremely competitive environment as suggested above, early applications become increasingly important.  for the top universities, those that apply early have a greater chance of being offered a place.  Perhaps many are toying with the idea of committing to such a vast expense explains the delay, however they are actually devaluing that commitment by leaving it later to apply and probably not getting a place at their preferred, and perhaps, better choice of university.

My own view is that figures will have dropped significantly this year and that medicine and dentistry have sucked in a greater proportion of those applying overall.  Therefore the drop for all other courses will be significantly more than that for medicine and dentistry – as figures already suggest - as applicants migrate toward the more lucrative degrees.  

The figures so far bear this out; behind the 9% overall drop the so called ‘soft subjects’, such as communication studies and PR, have seen their applications fall by up to 40%.  Others, such as Education and Business studies have seen falls of around 30%.  Maths and engineering have seen an overall fall around 3%.  The figures are not the same at all universities, with some such as those in the Russell Group faring better.

This is the first evidence of the commodification of higher education; those degrees that deliver more financial benefit are becoming more popular.  Thos with a less tangible, or more specifically, financial value are being avoided.  To many this may seem obvious; aren’t all our decisions about maximising our financial gain?  The simple answer is no, or at the very least, it didn’t used to be; the sudden drop in applications to the subjects perceived as less lucrative makes that self evident.

It certainly is a tragic subversion of the traditional role of education as learning for the sake of learning.  It has been a long time coming, a fait accompli once the concept of charging for higher education was introduced, once the customer/service provider relationship was established.  As I have noted before, the Coalition is following Labours initial germ of a policy through to its logical conclusion.

It may well be courses such as English Literature and fine art, vital to our cultural and artistic development, an unquantifiable but valuable element of our society, that suffers most.  Art, literature and cultural expression all have a value in our society, one that is not simply expressed by the highest bid made at auction.  By eroding the role of our education institutions as existing for the sake of knowledge, we are eroding our cultural growth and understanding one step at a time.  Universities are one of the few places that have existed outside of the need for profit, where young people have been able to develop and knowledge created.  Tearing them down, is not the way forward.

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