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Wednesday
Aug052015

The University Outside State Control

[G]overnment interference in university education was not the outcome of a public outcry that university provision was of poor quality, but an act of control and subsequently of protectionism.

In the collection of writings making up the book The University Outside State Control, Professor John Kersey makes the historical point that

Government intervention in university education is a relatively recent, post-war phenomenon. In the past, even universities established by the state were largely self-regulating and self-governing, for example in the UK. Under this system there were few serious concerns about the capacity of universities to govern their affairs.

Analysing the subsequent development towards more state interference, Kersey writes

The increase of government control over the universities may be seen to have arisen not because of public outcry or university malfeasance, but rather because of the desire of government to bring university governance and admissions into line with their political views and agenda. More radically, such moves may also be seen as a political impulse to control what are potentially sources of powerful opposition to government policy.

What remains of the private sector - what Kersey calls the self-regulating sector - in higher education is under heavy attack.

The mainstream universities, concerned at competition for their territory and challenge to the system of tenure, have sought and often succeeded in persuading the state to legislate their competitors out of existence on the grounds that they threaten their definitions of quality in education. . . . The attack on the private sector has been vicious and unrelenting, bringing about crude market protectionism by the engagement of the state to defend those publically-regulated institutions from which it derives income. Make no mistake, this is a turf war, and the consumer is the loser.

Not only the academic and political establishments are to blame but also the media:

The media has been all too ready to print scandalous propaganda concerning private universities from state-sponsored sources without any serious investigation, which at its worst has led to a level of public debate on the issue of private universities that rises rarely above that of schoolyard name-calling. This is to some extent the result of the complexity of the issues concerned, which do not reduce into convenient soundbites, and also the public’s long-standing psychological dependence on the concept of state ownership of higher education, which is easily manipulated into the suggestion that the private sector poses a threat.

Kersey doesn't say this outright, but it becomes plausible on reflection that the academic and the political establishments have overlapping interests which enable a tacit alliance between the two to the effect that the state gives the universities funding and a legally privileged position in return for the universities allowing the government to pursue non-academically motivated social policies through the universities. There may also be a selection process in force with the effect that scholars who express views critical of government interference in academia are being held back from higher positions in the university hierarchy or deliberatively chose to leave academia to pursue other careers. Some scholars who hold views critical of government and remain within the university may chose not to express these views publicly in the knowledge that this might hurt their academic careers.

As Kersey points out, "academic freedom is a vital condition for the pursuit of scholarship" and "the control of educational institutions by government is ultimately in conflict with academic freedom". An independent university, by contrast, Kersey explains, is a university that "seeks to pursue its activities without government interference in order to enjoy academic freedom and control over its destiny." Such universities are self-regulating and establish their own funding. They offer educational programmes that meet market needs and, unlike a government controlled university, if the independent university fails in its mission, no government will bail it out.

In the free market, students and employers can decide for themselves what is acceptable for their own purposes. Some people may reject what others accept. Each may find the education that is suited to his or her own educational philosophy and individual needs. 

Choice leads to diversity, and diversity breeds excellence. Without the means of competition and innovation, mainstream university education will be all but dead in the water as education, and it will be overwhelmingly dependent on government because the web of the state’s influence will mean that it is too compromised to cope within the free market. On the other hand, free market competition from both large and particularly small private providers will not only sharpen up poor performers in the public sector, but also introduce more private sector options which will stimulate growth and demand for educational provision as a whole.

A major threat against diversity are the ongoing attempts of international bodies to standardise higher education such as the European Union's Bologna process and similar processes elsewhere. As Kersey points out

All these may be seen as ultimately constituting attempts to restrict free educational choice for the consumer and replace the existing diversity of provision with a series of standardised and hegemonic “state awards” (naturally reflecting the particular educational and political ideologies and agendas of their promoters).

On many points, Kersey's general perspective overlaps with that of James Tooley in the latter's excellent book Reclaiming Education (my review). But while Tooley is interested in education as a whole (which he stresses is much more than just schooling), Kersey is primarily concerned with higher education. As such, Kersey's book is a nice complement to Tooley's book. Both books discuss issues far beyond those I have mentioned above, and in Kersey's case these include the concepts and histories of non-traditional education and distance learning. He raises the fundamental question of what a university is and defends the "university of the Internet age".

Many chapters of The University Outside State Control are available online here.

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