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December 09, 2004
Clarke versus Reich

I'm not sure myself what I think of it, especially when governments are so heavily involved, but one of the biggest education stories that has emerged while I've been writing this blog has been educational globalisation.

The BBC presents two contrasting views of this process. Our Education Minister Mr Clarke is for it, and wants only to encourage it, although politicians encouraging something doesn't necessarily mean that it will actually be very encouraged. Here is a BBC report of his globalisation thoughts yesterday:

The UK must be a serious player in the global market for students if it is to prosper, says the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke.

He told a British Council-organised UK International Education Conference in Edinburgh that this was worth £10.4bn a year to the economy.

However, as a result of this report, I found myself following a link back to a warning given by Robert Reich to British higher education:


Britain has been warned of the dangers of following America in the "marketisation" of higher education.

The warning came from Robert Reich, a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University and a labour secretary in President Clinton's administration.

I've had a busy day and am still studying Reich's thoughts, but a cursory look-through suggests that this is a particularly important point:

There is also along with the marketisation of higher education there's a greater and greater emphasis on vocational and pre-career university courses and the advertising and marketing of vocational and pre-career - accounting, law, economics, finance, engineering, applied sciences - these are becoming very, very popular, undergraduate curricula in these areas are expanding dramatically, a faculty who are teaching in these areas are paid better and better. And so more seriously the classics – literature, history, some of the basic sciences - have become poor stepchildren. Because you see it follows that as you envision higher education as a system of private investment for private return and as that sinks into the public's mind it naturally follows that the concept of a liberal arts education or an education in humanities or the education in broad-based social sciences or in classics or whatever has less and less justification in the public's mind.

But is there not also another explanation for the decline of the humanities, which is that the potential consumers of these services are distressed by the nature of the product. "Liberal arts education" is surely the bit of US higher education that has degenerated most spectacularly in recent years. This is where bias, ignorance, and hostility to all the kinds of values of the kind that such an education used to promote has run riot most riotously. Vocational courses have a built-in mechanism to enable their quality to be assessed. How well to the products of such courses then do in their careers? This, I submit, has kept them up to the mark and created meaningful competition, in a way that relates to what those customers want from such courses. No such mechanism is built into humanities courses.

And there is also the simple fact that only a few are drawn towards the academic life. The recent trend towards marketisation has accompanied something which might have happened anyway, without such marketisation, which is simply: expansion. Do more higher education, and you are not going to churn out the exact same proportion of historians and literary critics, unless you are very foolish. Could Reich be blaming marketisation for something which is actually just plain common sense, and if he is right to blame marketisation, would it not make more sense to praise marketisation for registering the wisdom of such an alteration of educational emphasis? Would America really be a better country had the universities unleashed a million more humanists, or whatever they are called?

Just a couple of thoughts, which are of course related. I have more homework to do about this piece, but that's no reason for me not to link to it in the meantime, as I hope you agree.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:17 PM
Category: GlobalisationHigher education

I expect the underlying reason is that Robert Reich new undergraduate course on “Social Justice” aren’t “marketising” as well as he’d told Brandeis they would.

The same thing seems to have happened to his wife previously-

Perhaps that after years in education, you get to think that the only thing that matters is marks, which is why academics are often so incapable of learning from quantity and price signals.

Comment by: Giles on December 10, 2004 01:32 AM

The other side of the coin is that we are hearing that courses that are expensive to run are declining, in spite their vocational relevance. Chemistry is the one usually cited.

Comment by: Andrew McGuinness on February 8, 2005 02:46 PM
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