International league tables and rankings in higher education
The public interest role of the universities
Universities have marketed themselves in the public sphere and justified public funding for their activities on the grounds that they serve the public good. They have traded on their Enlightenment inheritance that they are the guardians and creators of knowledge produced for the greater good of humanity in its entirety. They are seen and claim to be seen as the watchdogs for the free interchange of ideas in a democratic society; they claim to work to protect freedom of thought, including the freedom to dissent from prevailing orthodoxies. They are quintessentially defined as public interest institutions and their research is granted status and credibility on the basis of its disinterestedness (De La Fuente 2002; Lieberwitz 2004).
Over the last decade however, universities have been transformed increasingly into powerful consumer-oriented corporate networks, whose public interest values have been seriously challenged (Rutherford 2005). To what extent universities honoured their public interest inheritance in the past, even prior to the takeover by neo-liberal market values, is, moreover, debateable. Years of research evidence on the patterns of class inequality in education have shown that not only has there been little class mobility in education over the last 50 years (Shavit and Blossfeld 1993; Clancy 1988, 1995, 2001; Archer et al. 2002), there is little hope of social mobility through education for many even in prosperous countries like the USA (Gamoran 2001). Universities have been embedded with professional interests in different countries, servicing those interests well from a functional perspective, but often doing little to challenge the evident social closure practices within powerful professional groups. They have been party to forming the professional class of the welfare states (where such states existed) (Hanlon 2000). Professional associations (in medicine, dentistry, law, pharmacy, psychology, veterinary science, and so on) have exercised considerable control over university education, specifying hours of professional practice, staff–student ratios and course content, in a manner that has more often been endorsed than challenged by the academic world. In my own university I have watched with interest over the last 20 years as professional groups put pressure on the university to resource courses and reduce student intake in their fields for the expressed purposes of maintaining standards. The need to have courses validated by international professional associations is always cited as the reason for reducing numbers and increasing resources. The indirect effect of this in a financially constrained environment has been to control student intake, making it more competitive and selective. This is highly advantageous to the profession given the logic of supply and demand in a market-led economy. However, it also has profoundly inegalitarian effects as it increases the cost of services due to a reduced supply of professionals in certain fields. It also alters the social profile of the student intake as higher academic entry standards strongly favour the socially advantaged. A series of national studies of entrants to higher education in Ireland spanning almost 20 years shows that students entering the professional faculties of law, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science have been drawn disproportionately from the middle and upper middle classes (Clancy 1988, 1995, 2001). The response of the universities to extensive criticism of these developments has been both slow and limited in its impact. In certain respects, what is happening now in the universities is that they are being asked to produce commercially oriented professionals rather than public interest professionals (Hanlon 2000). While this may seem like merely a change in form rather than substance, the danger with this advancing marketised individualism is that it will further weaken public interest values among those who are university educated. Yet a welfare-oriented democratic state depends on the realisation of such values to provide services on a universal basis. Without adhesion to such values, the only basis on which services will be provided is on the ability to pay.
In their internal operations too, the history of universities shows that they have been both hierarchical and patriarchal (Bagilhole 1993; Morley 1999; Hey 2001; Saunderson 2002; Reay 2004). Certainly, it is hard to argue that universities were models of enlightened organisational practices even prior to the emergence of the endorsement of neo-liberal values. While there have been critical voices in higher education, critical of its pedagogy and its exclusivity, it is also true that they have been minority voices, often working against the tide even in the pre-neo-liberal days. So the cry of the academy that its public interest functions are being undermined by the neo-liberal agenda can ring hollow to those who have lived for generations without the privilege of higher education.
The vision of the university as a place for the education of the elite and for elite education has had a powerful historical precedent in Plato’s Academy. To what extent the Platonic view of education still dominates our thinking about the role and purposes of the universities is arguable (Harkavy 2005). Certainly the focus of his interest, the realisation of aristocratic order, has been superseded by history, not least because of the successful democratisation and universalisation of education itself. What has come to pass is the growing commercialisation of higher education although this is not entirely a late twentieth- or twenty-first-century phenomenon. It is the pace and intensity of commercialisation that has been exacerbated. During the Second World War, and particularly during the Cold War years, the sciences in particular became more openly and deliberately commercial especially in the USA (Bok 2003). Reforms implemented in Britain after the Robbins report in 1963 also altered working conditions for academics in that jurisdiction as the proportion of staff employed directly by the universities declined throughout the 1970s (Halsey 1992; Henkel 1997). In Ireland, the centralisation of power and control allowed for under the Universities Act 1997 has come to fruition within the last two years with a radical restructuring of the universities along corporatist lines. This has been especially evident in the three largest universities (University College Dublin (UCD), University College Cork (UCC) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD)) although the two newer universities University of Limerick (UL) and Dublin City University (DCU) were constituted in the early 1990s as highly centrally controlled institutions. What is new about the commercialisation of university education in the twenty-first century is its moral legitimacy. Commercialisation is normalised and its operational values and purposes have been encoded in the systems of all types of universities (Steier 2003).