Changing Higher Education in the United Kingdom: Examining Three Trends through a Neoliberal Lens.

AuthorPerry, Amy

OVER ROUGHLY THE PAST HALF CENTURY, HIGHER EDUCATION IN the United Kingdom has experienced a rather dramatic shift in response to national and global forces. Once positioned as the site for the creation of cultural goods, it has since been recast as a factory and its principal product is the added value (in the form of human capital) that students receive as they are processed along the conveyor belt and handed their degrees. In large part, this change can be attributed to the ascent of neoliberalism both in the United Kingdom and globally. The beginning of the current political era is often marked by Margaret Thatcher's election to prime minister, although the seeds of neoliberalism predate her election. While Thatcher successfully targeted and dismantled a number of institutions formed in the post-war Keynesian era, education was never a primary target of Thatcher's government. Nonetheless, both during and after Thatcher's tenure as prime minister, higher education was subject to a number of trends and forces that altered the way higher education looks in the United Kingdom today.

The purpose of this article is twofold: to provide a brief historical overview of the ascent of neoliberalism in the United Kingdom and to examine three trends in higher education through a neoliberal lens--the widening of participation and the politics of aspiration, the emergence of the student entrepreneur-consumer, and the marketization of higher education. The article also explores the use of online courses as a response to market pressures and the potential impact on students.

Neoliberalism's Rise: The Election of Margaret Thatcher

Neoliberalism is often used as a buzzword with a range that may extend beyond its reach. Among researchers, there is no consensus on the principles that the term neoliberalism is supposed to embody. Broadly speaking, neoliberalism refers to an economic theory that champions the role of free market forces in state governance, with a rhetorical emphasis on individual freedom (Peck 6cTickell 2007). The flexibility and generality of the term has led some to question its theoretical utility, but to the extent that there is a distinctive philosophical, political, and economic movement that we call neoliberalism, it is in part the flexibility and generality of its principles that has fueled the movement's staying power (Schmidt & Thatcher 2014). The stickiness of its rhetoric lies in the appeal of its central concepts: individual liberty and freedom (Harvey 2007). Yet while the rhetoric of neoliberalism emphasizes a decreased role of the state, the neoliberal project involves rolling out new forms of governance more than it does rolling back the role of the state (Peck & Tickell 2007).

At times, neoliberalism is spoken of with an almost mythic reverence. Neoliberalism is the bogeyman, a top-down conspiracy theory on the part of a set of global ruling elites. In actuality, however, neoliberalism did not experience a global, unified rollout but rather developed in myriad localized settings before it took on global import as a loosely grouped set of general governing principles (Peck &, Tickell 2007, Schmidt & Thatcher 2014). Neoliberalism was a response to, and the result of, global forces, crises, and events such as the energy crisis of the early 1970s, but the ways in which it took root and the paths it took to prominence varied from nation to nation and depended on a combination of global and local concerns. In the United Kingdom, neoliberalism followed a monetarist path as a reaction to and attempt to combat inflation and rising prices (Harvey 2007).

Neoliberalism and Thatcherism

Neoliberalism arose in the 1970s and 1980s as a reaction against the perceived failing of the so-called welfarism of Keynesian economics (Kendall 2003). The election of world leaders like Margaret Thatcher as prime minister of the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan as president of the United States are frequently cited as evidence of a paradigm shift away from Keynesian economics and toward a focus on (or fixation with) free market ideology, but the ideological seeds that gave rise to neoliberalism predate the elections of Thatcher and Reagan. Certain core elements of neoliberal thought date back to the nineteenth century, such as the emphasis on individualism and the idea of self-made men in Victorian England (Littler 2013). This is not to suggest a direct line between neoliberalism and Victorian morality--self-care may have instead fertilized the ground in which neoliberalism took root--but rather that neoliberalism did not come to prominence as an entirely novel theory or philosophy and shares some similarities with this earlier English tradition.

More direct links to neoliberalisms lineage can be found in German ordoliberalism and Chicago School economics in the United States (Kendall 2003). In the early 1970s, US economists attempted to revive Chile's economy following Augusto Pinochet's coup by successfully implementing policies that, among other initiatives, strengthened the role of the market and privatized public assets (Harvey2007). This success, however, was largely restricted to ruling elites and foreign investors (Harvey 2007), a pattern that to a certain extent held true for the Chicago School's neoliberal successors.

Neoliberalism in the United Kingdom and elsewhere gained prominence as a reaction to the myriad economic and social crises of the time. In the early 1970s, economic instability in many parts of the world created an environment ripe for the ascent of neoliberalism (Fourcade-Gourinchas & Babb 2002). The growing discontent and interest in socialism that accompanied the precarious economy posed a threat to ruling elites (Harvey 2007). Through privatization, financialization, state redistribution, and crisis manipulation and management, neoliberal practices enabled ruling elites to resecure class power (Harvey 2007). State governments varied in how they rationalized the implementation of neoliberal state policies, with some, like the United Kingdom, leaning heavily on domestic concerns (Fourcade-Gourinchas & Babb 2002). International organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have played a prominent role in scattering the seeds of neoliberal ideology globally (Harvey 2007).

Amidst a decade of turmoil, Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the embattled Conservative Party in 1975 (Scott-Samuel et al. 2014) and in 1979 she was elected prime minister of the United Kingdom. Thatcher's aggressive support of neoliberal policies went above and beyond her US partner in crime Ronald Reagan (Harvey 2007). Her stringent support for neoliberal policies stood in contrast to the U-turn of former Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-1974), who was also with the Conservative Party (Scott-Samuel et al. 2014, 55). Thatcher's rise to power was a reaction to the perceived inadequacies of Heath's time as prime minister, yet even so, Thatcher's tenure was, to an extent, stymied by opposition within her own party, and her vision for the United Kingdom was never fully realized, as she found herself unable to dismantle key institutions of the welfare state such as the National Health Service (Harvey 2007). Thatcher was nonetheless broadly successful in achieving her aims. As a fierce champion of the free market, Thatcher oversaw the growth of business interests in the United Kingdom and successfully chipped away at other elements of the welfare state (Scott-Samuel et al. 2014). As a political ethos, Thatcherism consisted of three major elements: monetarism and privatization, decreased union standing, and anti-socialism (Edwards 1989).

During the early part of Thatcher's reign, education was not targeted for radical restructuring like other key institutions. While education as a whole underwent a sort of "creeping privatization," higher education in particular did not experience significant privatization (Whitty & Menter 1989,44). Universities did see a significant slash in state funding in the form of state-provided research grants and direct grants (Edwards 1989). Arguably the most significant change to higher education during Thatcher's reign came in the form of the Education Reform Act of 1988, which generated sweeping changes at all levels of education, abolishing tenure for incoming faculty and introducing market forces via expanded parental choice (Machin & Vignoles 2006). The Education Reform Act of 1988 can be attributed in part to the ascendance of the New Right as a political force in the United Kingdom, which consisted of both neoliberal and neoconservative strands (Taylor 1993) and was an uneasy blend of economic libertarianism and social and moral authoritarianism (Whitty & Menter 1989).

Neoliberalism and Higher Education in the United Kingdom: Post-Thatcher

Although higher education may not have been a principal target for Thatcher, she employed neoliberal logics against her chosen targets and the general tenor of her tenure as prime minister created a fertile context for the New Right to push through the 1980 and 1998 Education Reform Acts (Clay & Cole 1991). The effects of neoliberalism on higher education...

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