From the archives: Lists, rankings and the commodification of education

When academics do memes…

Academics are on strike, again. The marketization of universities, with the accompanying metrification of academic labour, has come in for plenty of scrutiny both from colleagues and commentators. We can see clearly that the whole package of market relations degrades our working conditions, our security, and constitutes an assault on our profession. That’s what the action is about. But these finer points still appear to be tricky for some to comprehend. Yesterday The Guardian reported that Universities are likely to be the next in line for Dominic Cummings’ special treatment, explaining that:

‘A recent report by the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank, founded by Michael Gove and seen as close to government thinking, said the higher education sector was seen as “out of touch” and “a sitting duck” for the new government. It claimed universities had lost “the faith of the nation in some critical areas” and flagged familiar ministerial concerns about failures to protect freedom of speech on campus, so-called “low quality” degrees that offered poor economic returns for students, excessive vice-chancellor pay and degree grade inflation.’

The irony! Michael Gove’s own right wing think tank complaining about universities acting exactly as instructed by a decade of government diktats! For as surely as night follows day, these very concerns – grade inflation, overpaid VC’s, and lightweight courses – follow from the very market structures that have been imposed on the sector.

As a sociologist who researches the organization of markets, my interest is in the mechanisms by which markets are implemented and the consequences that such things have. Some years ago I wrote a book, I Spend therefore I Am, speculating on the corrosive nature of market relationships, and spent some time reflecting on how market logics might undermine the very process of learning itself. Ironically, this section got me accused of lazy thinking by the Guardian reviewer, but I continue to believe that the imposition of market structures on the university sector is damaging in much deeper ways than we can immediately divine: damaging to our future civic community, to our pedagogy, and to the notion of education of an instrument of enlightenment, however that might be understood. It is damaging to our sense of self as academics; held to account by these measures, we have internalized these structures, fragmenting our sense of collective purpose and responsibility. The ‘look out for number one’ mentality that plagues so much of our public discourse has its toxic talons deep in our professional practice as well.

One of the great surprises of this string of industrial action is that has helped to restore some notions of solidarity and some sense of control in the face of the monolithic, overbearing market.  All hope is not lost! So, as we enter the third week of industrial action, I’ve dug this up from the archives. Please enjoy! From I Spend, therefore I Am, Chapter 5. The full chapter is available here:

Lists, rankings and the commodification of education 

One could argue that the credit crisis was a freak event, an outlier. That is just what the banking industry did, of course, as it wriggled on the hook of the worst financial mishaps in decades. But there does not always need to be a calamity to make us uncomfortable. Let’s go back to the case of higher education. In the last two decades, higher education in the United Kingdom has become increasingly market-driven. Universities have been transformed into a specialised service industry and a national corporate export. This reform has taken place under successive governments, but has reached a zenith under the stewardship of David Willetts, minister for universities and a leading intellectual in the Conservative party. Willetts’ neoliberal sympathies are clear – he is, for example, a member of the neo-liberal think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies – and he has pursued a progressive programme to introduce a market in higher education. Taking his cue from the Browne Review, commissioned by the previous Labour government and published in 2010, Willetts has greatly increased – trebled, in fact –and allowable tuition fees paid by students in England and Wales. Fees are just one part of a broader repackaging of education as some kind of saleable good where students are recast as customers. The following is typical Willetspeak:

‘We have therefore increased choice and flexibility. We have also transformed the amount of information that is available for prospective students, which we believe will drive up standards in universities as prospective students think about what contact hours they will have, what the class sizes will be, how universities score on the national students survey and, crucially, how universities score on employment outcomes for graduates.’15

Willet’s argument is clear: making students into consumers will somehow make universities better. If students have to pay fees the market will spontaneously arise, as universities compete with one another for ‘customers’. Access to higher education will be equal for rich and for poor, as all that matters will be the eventual combinatory effect of intellect and degree quality on the student’s earning power. Home students will no longer be ‘crowded out’ by overseas students, who paid fees anyway. Degree quality will be signalled by visible indicators of quality, such as school rankings, and (importantly) lower quality institutions will charge lower fees. In other words, the market for higher education will come to resemble one envisaged in the opening pages of economics textbook. 

A market arrangement demands that the benefits of education are seen in the same way: the student, a person responsible for the management of her economic career, receives the bulk of future benefits, and so should bear the costs while seeking to maximise returns. This axiom of higher education planning is demonstrably false. We all benefit from good teachers, nurses, civil servants, research scientists, chaplains, bureaucrats, administrators, town planners, sports coaches, and so forth, all of whom have received a university education, and many of whom will be hard pressed to recoup the fees and living costs that they have undertaken. Moreover, students are already facing substantial opportunity costs: costs of time, of missed wages, even of missed unemployment benefits. It is an aside, but forcing students to take on huge costs for an education pushes them towards the few areas where they can, they think, be sure of making enough money to repay their debts, such as banking, law, and the smarter parts of medicine. The resulting surplus of bankers and lawyers means that many will be underemployed, and more importantly, all our talent will be in the wrong place.16 

Better information is a central plank of these reforms, allowing students to make better, ‘more rational’ decisions. A presentation given by the Institute of Fiscal Studies discusses ‘information problems’ in the higher education market:

‘To make rational decisions, individuals must be perfectly informed about: the nature of product (university quality, HE experience); prices (fees, living costs and lost earnings); and future (earnings and debt repayments).’17 

Rationality is important, because, once the first step has been taken, once we have agreed that a student educates herself to increase her own capital and derive higher future earnings, then it is clear that the student, who now must pay for her education, should seek out the highest return on her fees. The student, a young person struggling to map out her future life, needs to become cool and calculative in choice of subject and institution, and as the IFS points out, rationality can’t happen without information.

Fortunately, she can make use of the paraphernalia of rankings, scores and quality measures that surround the contemporary university to assess the future returns on her investment of fees and time, not to mention foregone earnings. Rankings distribute calculation, assembling the potential student as a dispassionate, rational hybrid, an economic chooser of educational payoff against cost. 

But this is not all that rankings do. They are powerful creatures, and at the same time as they assess, university rankings tell students how schools should be assessed. The American sociologists Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder have shown that law schools in the United States have actually become more like the ideal institution on which the rankings are based.18 As rankings become increasingly important in student decisions, school administrators will deploy resources and funding in such a way as to improve the ranking. The more rankings pull in other stakeholders, the more powerful they become. 

Employers, for example, are likely to be convinced by the prestige of an institution, often seen in terms of rankings, and some career pathways really do close to students who fail to get into the upper echelons of the educational establishment. Telephone directory salaries paid to those in prominent positions in the financial industry, or corporate law, for example, attracts floods of young talent, and as Robert Frank and Philip Cook note, the doors are already closed for those who have not been undergraduates at elite institutions.  Frank mentions a student from a small Florida College, with a straight-A transcript and described in references as the best student her professors had ever taught, rejected by Harvard’s graduate economics program. Successful applicants also had straight-As and glowing references, but came from schools such as Stanford and Princeton. As he puts it, university administrators are ‘forced to play the odds, which tell us clearly that the best students from the best schools are better, on average than the best students from lesser schools’.19

Employers’ decisions feed back into the figures for the increase in salaries provided by a particular degree, and strengthen the ranking still further. Institutions, aware of the relationship between rankings and applications, pressure faculty to produce work that fits to an appropriate disciplinary mould and publish that work in outlets ranked high in discipline-specific lists. Institutional expenditure on research is expected to be manifest in a steady stream of publications, and academic achievement likely to be accounted for in terms of concrete measures such as the ‘h-index’ (a citation score indicating number of publications cited that number of times, and one means of indicating academic worth: an h index of ten means ten publications each cited at least ten times) than in the vague terms of reputation. Citation indexes and journal rankings make visible certain aspects of scholarly activity, and thus shape hiring decisions, reorganizing the labour market for academics. 

None of this is expected to devalue, or even change, the central task of the university: education. How can that be the case? If one of the leading rankings of universities incorporated the score for, say, neon signage – an absurd example – campuses would resemble Las Vegas within weeks. This process does not just happen in universities: city rankings, for example, have tremendous influence over the decisions of town planners.20 If administrators are worrying about signage (perhaps not neon, but branding does seem to matter to those at the top) or visible architecture and facilities, then there is a real danger, especially in institutions where funds are short and institutional positioning is precarious, that these things will draw money from less visible – less immediately accountable – purposes, such as teaching and teaching support. Moreover, administrators will come to understand their role as focused on improving rankings, rather than dealing with the central issues around learning and pedagogy. For example, the National Student Survey in the UK consistently reports that students are dissatisfied with the length of time it takes to get feedback: a possible solution would be a heavy reliance on automated multiple-choice tests, where feedback is instantaneous. Could we really consider that to be a pedagogic improvement, even if it is what students want?21 

Beyond the ubiquitous student experience surveys – and that ‘student experience’ carries a subtle repositioning of education as some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon – universities are subjected to all kinds of other assessment. Accreditation by professional bodies, driven by a desire to offer students more workplace-relevant qualifications, places demands on institutions and may reshape their curricula and the hiring strategies. Subjected to constant surveillance in research and teaching, faculty will play safe, offering conservative scholarship and low-risk traditional teaching. And who can blame them, with their jobs on the line if they fail to deliver good publications and systematically reach high teaching feedback scores? Where academic labour is reduced to the attainment of ranked publications and nothing more, it is inevitable that those academics prepared to play the game will abandon long-term attachments and circulate in the market, moving from institution to institution in pursuit of higher salaries. The losers, of course, are their students. 

The same transformation that has overtaken many corporations has begun to reshape the academic career. The American tenure track system, where young academics must hit certain targets to secure a permanent post, increasingly resembles the ‘rank and yank’ system, where employees openly compete for preferment and to avoid dismissal, prevalent at the sharp end of the private sector, though perhaps without the commensurate financial rewards. We know that incentive systems, just like institutional rankings, will bring into being the kind of employees that they imagine: if the only way to survive in the tenure system is to combine technical excellence with an avoidance of risk and, perhaps, a willingness to strategically manipulate one’s partners in research to one’s own advantage, then these are the characteristics that will appear. Individuals that survive the private sector’s ‘rank and yank’ may be exactly the kind of hard-nosed, savvy strategists that a corporation demands, but they may not improve an profession that is fundamentally based upon trust, empathy and pastoral competence, that is for many a calling as much as a career.

A market system also reshapes the priorities of students. When students are recast as customers they start acting like customers. But often they do not see that there are different kinds of customers; that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is profoundly different transaction to embarking upon a process of education that requires the student to participate to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve. Of course, the tin of beans model is much easier, and many students prefer it. There is a resistance to understanding education as a process that involves reflection, trust, empathy and risk. Instead, many students see education as a set of targets, of boxes to tick, of work carried out at a particular level that will result in a qualification of a certain kind, where the student has simply to consume and regurgitate pre-digested chunks of knowledge. Students will choose modules that they perceive as easy, in order to get higher grades, which are worth more in the purely external sense of better employment offers and better salaries. Learning becomes about memorising and reproducing, while the higher order pedagogic goals of synthesising, critiquing and evaluating – skills that we really need our young people to have, that are more useful and more worthwhile to the student themselves in any context beyond the shortest of short term – are pushed to one side. 

As students take on more and more debt they become risk averse in their learning and their choices; in the twenty first century, debt serves the same purpose as hunger did in the nineteenth, taming the fiercest student, teaching docility and civility to the most obstinate and perverse. In such a system, opportunities for developing as a thoughtful, reflective and self-aware individual are missed and education exists in the most limited form. The guiding principle of student satisfaction turns out satisfied students, yet a satisfied student is impossible to teach. We should aim instead for dissatisfied students, unsettled by what they have learnt, and driven to critically examine their preconceptions.22 

Finally, a market in education will do what markets always do: allow benefits to flow from the weaker the stronger sellers, from less affluent to more affluent buyers. Institutions at the top of league tables can strengthen their position further, and as the most elite institutions increase their prestige so young people with more resources – not of ability, as supposed, but of capital, education and class – will claim more of the benefits. Like individuals, universities are under pressure to generate returns from their activities. One avenue for doing so is the construction of a supportive alumni network, and this might even come to influence entry to an institution, determined by the possible future contribution to an alumni dividend. Such a tendency will militate against broader access and shore up the entry prospects of those who already come from wealthy backgrounds.23 Rather than opening up access, commodified education seems only to widen inequality.  

The commodification of university education has many consequences. Not least of these are a widening of inequality, a corruption of values, and the reduction of a social good, rich in intrinsic worth, an essential part of the apparatus of human flourishing, to an instrumental, short-term lever for personal advancement. This extraordinary, momentous transformation, a chasm rent in the post-war social contract, is held together by a most simple device: the list. 

In the economic world, scale refuses to stay in place. Tiny numbers have huge effects. Credit scores can transform an industry, and institutional rankings shake up a sector. Yet some economic devices, hardly larger, wield the power of life and death. When economic analysis, embedded in cost benefit ratios and efficiency tests, begins to dictate how we should protect and care for one another, we might pause to wonder just how much sovereignty we are prepared to surrender to these equations. We might even ask if there is a point beyond which we no longer wish to be economic men and women.  In the next chapter we will see how economic analysis allows us to set one life against another, how it puts a price on life, the most priceless thing of all. 


14. [accessed 02.08.2012]

15.  Extract from commons debate, 11 Sept 2012, source

16. Robert Frank’s notion of the ‘winner takes all market’ provides a nice explanation of this problem, in The Darwin Economy  (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011)

17. Gill Wyness, Institute for Fiscal Studies (presentation, December 2010) My italics.

18. Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder, ‘Rankings and Reactivity: How Public Measures Recreate Social Worlds,’ American Journal of Sociology 113, no. 1 (2007) p.1-40

19. Robert Frank and Philip Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society, (London: Virgin Books, 2010) p.11-12

20. Martin Kornberger and Chris Carter, ‘Manufacturing competition: how accounting practices shape strategy making in cities,’ Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 23, no.3 (2010), p.325-349

21. This example from Rajani Naidoo, Avi Shankar, and Ekant Veer, ‘The consumerist turn in higher education: policy aspirations and outcomes,’ Journal of Marketing Management 27, no.11-12 (2011) p.1142-1162 who have written extensively on students as consumers, and on whose account I rely for these details. 

22. Alison Hearn, ‘On the violence of the new branded University of circulation’, paper given at MacroMarketing Conference, (Toronto: June 6, 2013)

23. On this point, also Hearn.