The Marketisation of UK Higher Education


Wendy Phillips BLM columnist

As tuition fees and university funding remain the subject of hot-debate and the delivery of value for money for students rises up the political agenda, universities must appeal to a more discerning student ‘market’ whilst demonstrating the efficient and effective use of resources.

Successive UK governments have been driven by a market ideology to deliver policy changes and recent government initiatives call for the use of commercial practices (e.g. outsourcing) by Universities to deliver efficiencies, improve quality and support core strategies. The adoption of market-based mechanisms by universities contrasts with the state logic inherent to many universities, which engenders practices consistent with a collegiate approach, communities of practice, public goods and the favouring of internal service provision.

Research undertaken by Bristol Business School and published in Policy & Politics, looks into how Universities have adopted organisational practices, specifically outsourcing, in response to recent policy changes. Engaging with top-level managers from UK universities, the research reveals that while a market-based approach supports commercial-based practices such as outsourcing, this is still limited to peripheral activities such as accommodation and IT. Universities employ competing approaches in complex ways – by drawing selectively on the market logic, Universities creatively integrate practices into existing structures and hi-jack the policy push towards outsourcing.

For example, some universities have used student rankings to legitimise not the market-based outcome of outsourcing to improve service offerings, but instead to strengthen internal service provision by citing ‘student experience’ as central to core activities. Many post 1992 universities actively mobilise the state logic to protect core activities, and limit the extent to which managerial practices such as outsourcing can be implemented.

Interestingly, in line with the state logic, core activities include not only research and teaching, but also social responsibility through providing support to local enterprises and communities.

Further, new cooperative solutions are emerging as universities co-opt language and practices of the market to justify new hybrid relationships that marry competing market and state logics.

Collaborative sourcing models such as shared services and partnerships with social enterprises, local authorities and non-profits present novel strategic options where universities can selectively couple the dual logics in a manner that allows them to adhere to government policy whilst avoiding internal organizational conflict. The study suggests that conflicting logics limit the development of outsourcing practices, challenging the policy assumption that public service organisations can be operated as if they are businesses.

Policy makers should consider the appropriateness of mechanisms through which to improve the performance of public services through asking the right questions and basing any policy changes on a strong evidence-base.

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