The business of higher education

The fee-for-degree trend will be a difficult one to reverse.

British author and professor Gary Rolfe doesn’t have to look far to find the encroaching corporate values he so vocally detests in education. His own university’s mission statement is a prime example: “Swansea [University] will deliver an outstanding student experience, with teaching of the highest quality that produces graduates equipped for distinguished personal and professional achievement.”
“The shocking thing about many of these mission statements for U.K. universities is the conspicuous lack of the word ‘education’ or the word ‘learning,’” explains Rolfe. “[These words] have been replaced with ‘student experience.’”

Rolfe’s latest book, “University in Dissent: Scholarship in the Corporate University,”  is a philosophical tongue-lashing of the U.K.’s recent shift to a fee-for-degree system.

“[In the U.S.] the focus appears still to be on education and, in some cases, a liberal education. This has all but disappeared in the U.K., apart from the very top schools,” he says. “Part of the reason for the difference might be that American students have paid up-front for their education [for a long time], and the system has grown up around that idea. Whereas fees were only introduced in the U.K. relatively recently. U.K. students are still adjusting to the idea of education as a purchase and, as a result, attitudes flipped very rapidly from education for its own sake to the idea of education as an investment.”

To combat this new ethos, Rolfe encourages faculty to develop what he calls a “paraversity” — a community of professors committed to the traditional aims of liberal education, no matter what the prevailing trends. 

But that doesn’t mean Rolfe is hopeful that these values will return wholesale.

“If we look at the history of the modern university over the past 200 years since its origins in Berlin, we can see a gradual but exponential shift from the university as being in the service of society and answerable to the state, to the current situation of self-funding, profit-making businesses,” says Rolfe. “There is, I fear, no turning back.”


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