Niches or clones
Chris Bertram’s CT post on the Browne reforms in UK Higher Education has prompted me to write a post I’d half-planned a while ago, after seeing this familiar (to Australian eyes) claim.
Too many universities simply state a desire to “achieve excellence in teaching and research” and appear unable to carve out a market niche, Professor Beer said.
The idea that a pseudo-market system (centralised control but with sharper price incentives) will generate diversity is one of many illusions that were exposed during the Australian reform era of the 1990s. Faced with pressure to find a market niche and select a “flagship” program, 37 Australian universities (out of 37) decided that business education and a multitude of specifically labelled vocational degrees were the right niche and that an MBA would be a good flagship. This is scarcely surprising: given the incentives, business degrees were the obvious profit centre. It’s only as the reform program has faded from memory that we are seeing serious attempts at diversity like the “Melbourne model”
However, similar choices didn’t produce a homogenous outcome. Rather, the historical hierarchy (century-old sandstones at the top, former teachers colleges at the bottom) which had been somewhat muted when funding flowed a little more freely, re-emerged stronger than ever. At the top, there was enough surplus to maintain, more or less, the full range of disciplines as well as the long-established professional schools (law, pharmacy and so on). The further down the scale you went the less of the arts, humanities and sciences survived. This apparently came as a surprise to the Australian equivalents of Professor Beer.
Even more bizarre was the shock expressed by some market advocates when they discovered that, with a customer base consisting of 18-year olds (who understood their own preferences), and parents (who mostly knew very little about units), the market produced very little demand for anything that was hard and didn’t purport to offer training for a well-paid job. Some of them seriously appeared to think that the market would kill off critical theory in favor of good old-fashioned classical education. In fact, provided the pill was sugar-coated with film studies and pop culture, critical theory didn’t do too badly, at least relative to old-style humanities. I myself am affiliated with the QUT Centre for Creative Industries, which derives much more from crit theory than from lit crit.
Australia has a long history of importing policies that have already failed in the UK. It’s a source of mild schadenfreude to see the trade going in the opposite direction for once.
fn1. As always, I use “reform” to mean “change in structure” with no implication of approval or disapproval. Given the history of C20, most reforms consist, in large measure, of undoing some previous reform.