Taking exams

My Observer column consists usually of two articles: a longer essay that I republish on Pandaemonium on the Monday, and a short piece that I normally don’t publish here. However, I am away for the next couple of weeks, so will be posting little new material on Pandaemonium. So, I am taking the opportunity to republish some of those shorter pieces. This, on the marketization of universities was first published in the Observer on 29 July under the headline ‘The penny finally drops – universities are businesses’.

Universities just want to put ‘bums on seats‘, complained Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, after it was revealed that the number of unconditional offers made to prospective students had rocketed. In 2013, 1% of those applying to universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were offered a guaranteed place regardless of their exam results; last year, nearly a quarter were.

Gyimah’s outrage is as convincing as the pope complaining that Catholic priests don’t have sufficient experience of married life or José Mourinho bemoaning that Manchester United play tedious football. Well, I’m shocked.

It has been government policy for years to introduce market forces into higher education. Five years ago, the then chancellor, George Osborne, summed up the approach as one of ‘ensuring increasing competition and allowing institutions who face strong demand to expand’. Gyimah himself has demanded the creation of a ‘ for universities‘.

So universities have become businesses and students have become consumers. Universities now do what businesses do: try to beat the competition. Unconditional offers are the equivalent of loss leaders to pull punters through the door. And students do what consumers do: shop around for the cheapest deal. In their case, cheap means not so much cash as effort. An unconditional offer gives them the freedom not to worry about exam results. Which university-as-business would not offer such a deal and which student-as-consumer would not accept it?

Gyimah has warned universities he is ‘closely monitoring the situation’. Perhaps he could monitor his own policy – and take some responsibility for it. If you want experience of married life you don’t become a Catholic priest. If you want attractive football you don’t hire Mourinho as manager. And if you want to improve education, you don’t turn universities into supermarkets.

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