Wild West Frontiers: Higher Education Reform in the UK

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Tampereen yliopiston tutkijakollegium IASR

Professori, tutkimusjohtaja (New Social Research) Rebecca Bodenin IASR-luento.

There is a significant degree of policy and organizational isomorphism in the global higher education reform landscape, with widespread mobility of concepts, systems and structures. This paper looks at one of the principal origins of such reform – England. The English higher education system has been subject to accelerating, radical, neoliberal reform since 1990. It is marked by marketization, students-as-customers and financialisation as universities move from being part of the social economy to the for-profit market economy.

The metaphor of the Wild West of America is used in this paper to discuss the current phase of reform. In the 19th Wild West an open frontier land, with the promise of riches untold, encouraged a desperate race to capitalize on opportunities. Law and regulation were slow to follow the ‘pioneers’ – hence the appropriate sobriquet ‘wild’.   

In the English higher education system successive governments have created the conditions necessary to open up a new, unregulated Wild West frontier in the sector. In this paper I chart these precursor actions and policies and discuss how the starting gun has been fired, setting loose a for-profit market free-for-all. Deliberate de- and non-regulation is central tenet of the government’s approach. This has begun to engender significant market adjustment and ownership/capital restructuring with, I argue, possible fundamental, adverse and extreme implications for the nature and quality of research and teaching in English universities. 

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Tutkimussihteeri Marjukka Virkajärvi
puh. 050 318 6697