The Corporate University, Health as commodity and the citizen as customer.

 “As universities mirror the increasingly unequal nature of English society … their role in advancing social equality, or minimising embedded disadvantage, will be traduced in a ‘meritocratic’ game of spotting talent and ensuring that it is slotted into the appropriate tier.” So writes Andrew McGettigan on the the discoversociety.org website in 2014. This comment on the ‘corporate university’ indicates that universities have functions that go beyond only meeting the needs of student consumers in their quest for a job, that indeed Universities should address aims beyond producing  ‘cognitive capitalism‘.

Should we care at all about this, or should we encourage even more market discipline?

For some, education is a commodity which should be bought and sold in a free market.  If a student wishes to borrow money to study literature or sociology then that is their choice, the State has no business in supporting study that has little direct economic benefit for individuals or society. So goes the free market apologists who places trust in the individual rational action of the student/consumer when buying the commodity of education. This is not new. Logan et al in 1989 argued in the context of the provision of health care that

“…services should be treated just like any other commodity that can be efficiently produced and consumed under market conditions”.

David  Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, told a fringe event at the most recent Conservative party conference: unleashing the forces of consumerism is the single best means of improving the quality of undergraduate provision.

Student tuition fees have turned students into customers. This is seen as a ‘good thing’. Students will vote with their money and desert courses and institutions that they feel will not fulfill their hopes and aspirations. Competition for Elite universities will thus increase and only the best survive – a bit like the Premier League. Since its inception we have seen the loss of 50 football clubs as well as a sense of the club representing the local community values. Does that matter? Not if you are the winner – a Manchester City/Utd or a Chelsea – or a winner’s fans.

A clearer statement of the ideology of free market capitalism you will find hard to beat. Consider that this thinking has, not as yet, boldly reared its head for health. How would you feel upon hearing:

“unleashing the forces of consumerism is the single best means of improving the quality of health care provision”.

What do you think about  this:  Individuals should pay for their own health and social care needs at the point of delivery, as they are best placed to know what their needs are and how much they value health and social care. If they value beer and fags more, then that is their choice and the state should not intervene in that decision.  Individuals and families could pay for insurance for that ‘rainy day’ of dementia, cataracts or a broken leg. Hospitals and GP practices would be forced to compete for customers and those with poor reputations would have to close. Public Health England could be disbanded as a wasteful state cost base and instead individuals could be nudged to take responsibility for their health.

Well, if you have swallowed market ideology wholesale, that might sound like nirvana.

If universities are turning into warehouses for the production of cognitive capitalism in which education is a commodity to be bought and sold for instrumental purposes (“its the economy, stupid”), then their social role diminishes. Likewise, is health care a commodity to be bought and sold or does society also need a health sector that addresses the social and political determinants of health as well?

Individual rights and liberties balanced with social solidarity?

At root this is the difference between a social democratic political philosophy and a market driven neoliberal agenda. Its your choice, but remember ‘some animals are more equal than others‘ and they have the clout to ensure they stay ‘more equal’.