Gradual Commodification of European HEIs

European HEIs did not go through an idealistic phase of orienting themselves on how to serve the public good more directly in the same way as their US counterparts. However, from the second half of the 20th century onwards universities were gradually re-structured in congruence with the demands of increasingly complex economies demanding qualified employees. Governments aimed at expanding access to higher education, opening existing HEIs to more students and creating a number of new HEIs. Dwindling public resources[1] seemed to require the end of free university education and the introduction of study fees. The increased numbers of institutions competed for public and private resources and also for being perceived as offering the most competitive education and highest levels of employability. The influence of the global successes of US universities contributed to the acceleration of internationalisation; together with new information technologies, it incited the national European HEIs to re-internationalise, using English as the new lingua franca and supporting student and researcher mobility[2] as well as international research collaborations.[3]

While all this did not necessitate turning the activities of HEIs into marketable services, it certainly facilitated this development. The concept of commodification, mentioned in the context of the United States’ HEIs, which describes a process by which an activity (such as higher education or research) is changed in order to become a service tradeable on markets, seems equally suitable to describe the recent developments of European HEIs. This process turns education and research from a public good into a commodity. As has been seen, European public HEIs are national institutions. They are publicly funded, containing elements of national identity and culture and are tasked with accumulating and disseminating knowledge and providing higher education (without a particular, commercially exploitable aim) for all.[4] Public higher education can be regarded especially as belonging to the welfare state as wider access to HEIs is seen as a precondition of participation in complex economies and thus increasingly constitutes an element of social policy. Therefore, in Europe, where higher education and research can widely be comprehended as a public good, commodification of HEIs also inverts the process of de-commodification characteristic for public services in the welfare state.[5]

The following trends are seen as characteristic for the commodification of European HEIs: public funding is reduced which leads to the introduction of business style administration of HEIs as well as competitive parameters for public funding and the need to look for alternative sources. Private providers start offering degree courses and organising research projects in the HEI ‘market’. Academic research not only becomes more interdisciplinary, but also more applied.[6] Furthermore, universities start to focus on such fields of research where demand by business and public funders is greatest. HEIs also increasingly cooperate with industry and commercially exploit the results of their own research.[7]

As will be explored further in the rest of this book (in particular in Chap. 6 Sect. 6.4), such commodification gives rise to certain problems. Mass higher education, though desirable from an equality point of view, can threaten quality unless funding is increased. Otherwise, fees might need to be introduced, which again threatens the equality achieved by providing mass higher education in the first place. Mass teaching can also interfere with research commitments which led to a separation of teaching and research.[8] Changes in governance and funding structures threaten to destroy the spirit of cooperation in HEIs, as management becomes more top-down and individuals have to experience performance related job insecurity.[9] The conduction of increasingly applied, interdisciplinary and international research contributes to making research more expensive which, in turn, contributes to the increasing importance of external (non-generic public as well as private) research funding.[10] This can threaten ‘blue sky’ research which could improve the knowledge base in the long-term as well as academic freedom since governmental and business’ policy aims are increasingly intertwined with the HEIs’ letting them be influenced by the fashions of the time and short term political goals.[11] Yet, as has been seen, it is the traditional mission of the university to conduct such research and there is no other institution which could fill this role. Furthermore, this tendency can also lead to ethically problematic research.[12] In addition, preparing funding applications and other administrative work requires valuable time and money being spent on this which could have been used for teaching and research.[13]

  • [1] Former Higher Education Minister for England, David Lammy, for example, declared that‘any pressures on spending should be seen against the background of a long-term increase instudent numbers [...] with “more students than ever before in our history”’. See Richardson H(2010) University budget cuts revealed. BBC, 1 February 2010 Accessed 2 February 2010.
  • [2] As we will see in Chap. 2, the free movement of knowledge is now also a part of EU researchpolicy (Sect. and the free movement of citizens as part of Union citizenship allowsfor free movement and equal treatment (at least as regards access to HEIs) of EU students(Sect.
  • [3] See Rohrs 1995, p. 109 seq, 115; Connell 2004, p. 17 seq, 22 seq; Scott 2006, p. 30 seq;Konsortium Bildungsberichterstattung 2006, p. 101; Choon Fong 2008, p. 80 seq; Cowan et al.2009, p. 278 seq, 290 seq; Deiaco et al. 2009, p. 329 seq; De Weert 2009, p. 143 seq; Hubig2009, p. 51; Neave 2009; Palfreyman and Tapper 2009b, p. 205 seq, 209 seq; Steinfeld 2009;Stichweh 2009, p. 2; Wissema 2009, p. 17 seq, 31 seq; Smith 2015.
  • [4] Teichler 2007, p. 105; Walkenhorst 2008, pp. 567, 574 seq.
  • [5] Esping-Andersen coined the term ‘de-commodification’ to explain the purpose of welfaresystems as a means to create independence for individuals of their capacity to engage in themarket. See Esping-Andersen 1990, p. 21 seq, 35 seq; Esping-Andersen 1999, 43 seq.
  • [6] The following definition used by the OECD in its Frascati Manual will be used throughoutthis book: ‘Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquirenew knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without anyparticular application or use in view. Applied research is also original investigation undertakenin order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practicalaim or objective. Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledgegained from research and/or practical experience, which is directed to producing new materials,products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improvingsubstantially those already produced or installed’ OECD 2002.
  • [7] For more on commodification trends see, Rohrs 1995, p. 106 seq; Connell 2004, p. 17 seq,21 seq; Konsortium Bildungsberichterstattung 2006, p. 101 seq; Jongbloed and van der Meulen2006; Choon Fong 2008, p. 78 seq, 82 seq; Deiaco et al. 2009, p. 330 seq; Palfreyman andTapper 2009b; Steinfeld 2009; Stichweh 2009, p. 2; Cowan et al. 2009; De Weert 2009; Hubig2009 p. 50 seq, 57, p. 28 seq; Kempen 2009; Neave 2009; Thornton 2012. In favour of thesetrends see Van der Ploeg and Veugelers 2007, p. 26 seq; Wissema 2009, p. 17 seq, 31 seq, 38 seq.
  • [8] See further Rohrs 1995 p. 106 seq; Connell 2004, p. 17 seq, 21 seq; Cowan et al. 2009,p. 292 seq; Deiaco et al. 2009, p. 330 seq; De Weert 2009, p. 134 seq (who also elaborates oncase studies which explore the effects teaching and research have on each other), 140, 146;Neave 2009 pp. 18, 23 seq, 29 seq; Palfreyman and Tapper 2009b p. 203 seq, 210 seq.
  • [9] Indeed in July 2015 a letter by over 100 UK (United Kingdom) academics was published inThe Guardian (newspaper) calling for the Parliament’s Education Committee to investigate the‘deprofessionalisation and micro-management of academics [which] is relentlessly eroding theirability to teach and conduct research effectively and appropriately’ as well as the ‘unprecedentedlevels of anxiety and stress among both academic and academic-related staff’. See The Guardian(2015) Let UK universities do what they do best—teaching and research. The Guardian, 6 July2015 Accessed 15 July 2015.
  • [10] Smith 2015.
  • [11] For example, Peter Higgs who researched the well reported so-called ‘god particle’ andreceived the Nobel Prize for it recently expressed the view that he ‘wouldn’t be productiveenough for today’s academic system’ and that the current system would prevent breakthroughsas his, as it would not allow the researchers the necessary time for research. See AitkenheadD (2013) Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system. TheGuardian, 6 December 2013 Accessed 21 April 2014. Similarly, Thomas Suedhof who recentlywon the Nobel Prize in medicine, expressed that funding for basic research is in danger and thatthis ‘worries [him] tremendously’. See Conger K (2013) Thomas Sudhof wins Nobel Prize inPhysiology or Medicine. Stanford News, 7 October 2013 Accessed 21 April 2014.
  • [12] For example, in the US universities were required to contribute with their research to the wargoals during the Second World War and the Cold War, as the federal government (rather thanstate governments which provide generic funding) had become the most important funder. SeeRohrs 1995, p. 107 seq; Scott 2006, p. 27 seq.
  • [13] Smith 2015. In light of the high costs of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, eventhe UK government itself has raised concerns in this regard. See BIS 2015 p. 72.
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