Has marketisation of higher education reached its limits?

Ever since the mid-1980s when the Japanese Kaizen (‘improvement’) approach and Toyota Production System (TPS) quality mechanisms were adopted by major players in business and beyond, ‘quality’ has also become a dominant orthodoxy across higher education systems.

Quality metanarratives, made up of an overlapping number of norms, standards and agencies, offer images of transparency, accountability and excellence within a context of public funding cuts and rising consumerism.

Studies show that this market-based quality brouhaha, replete with league tables and rankings, bears no tangible transformative or empowering benefit for academics or students and neither does it bear a positive effect on the quality of teaching and learning.

Grade inflation

Grade inflation is one negative impact. Although caution should be taken in interpreting or generalising the impact of marketisation and rankings on grade inflation as the only factors at play, studies suggest that grade inflation has gone global in recent decades.

Interestingly, this phenomenon coincides with the rise of neoliberal ideology, its application to higher education and the multiplication of ranking systems that influence higher education policy and practice through their indicators and methodologies.

Following rising concerns in the United Kingdom, for instance, the outcomes of the 2018 UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) report suggest that “student quality and characteristics and institutional efficiency alone cannot explain the trends we are seeing. Therefore, other factors, including potentially inflationary practices – or policies that have inadvertent inflationary outcomes – exist in UK higher education”.

Among the ‘unexplained’ factors creating grade inflation may well be market-oriented domestic rankings and metrics which are based on the proportion of ‘good’ degrees in each university, as well as public data on students’ attitudes towards their university.

Similar pervasive impacts are observed elsewhere.

In the United States, research shows academic marking, grade inflation and students/consumers’ satisfaction are interlinked. This is particularly worrisome as tenure decisions are partly based on students’ course evaluation and also as the research cites studies suggesting “graduates from elite ‘Ivy League’ universities are awarded higher grades than those from other types of US universities and colleges”.

In Canada, grade inflation is linked to an enrolment-contingent funding policy in a competitive higher education market. Similar cases exist in Australia, Ireland, Italy, India, Germany and the Philippines, where the market and its ranking tools are at least partly to blame for an overall decrease in teaching/learning quality and inflationary grading policies and practices.

Meanwhile, in France, where public higher education has been less exposed to market rules, grade inflation does not affect university education – partly also due to the general attitude towards grading in France and the existence of a grade harmonisation system in universities, among other factors.

In other cases, grade inflation may look more subtle. In China, for instance, one recent study refers to the “exhausting high school, carefree university” paradigm.

Despite its notorious low classroom quality standards, China has quite a high rate of 90% graduation from its colleges. A similar case is the Iranian higher education system where grade inflation starts at high school due to state policy. Students’ GPA in high school is a prerequisite to pass the national university entrance exam (‘concur’) and obtain a seat in the best fields or institutions.

Once students have passed the monstrous ‘gaokao’ or ‘concur’ in China and Iran respectively, graduation is treated as a fait accompli.

Student satisfaction

Grade inflation remains a complex phenomenon and requires more root cause and comparative analysis. That being said, three decades of test and trial is long enough to provide us with some evidence to realise that part of our problem lies in the prominence of market-based policies and practices in higher education.

The cutting down of public funding and reliance on (international) students’ tuition fees, obsessive concentration on students’ satisfaction as consumers, pressuring academics to publish or perish at the expense of quality of teaching, narrowly defining quality through metrics, grades, enrolment and graduation rates are only some of the examples that have subverted the social construction of higher education systems with undeniable damage to academia and wider societies.

Signs of change

However, I believe quality of teaching and learning can be restored. There are, at least, two reasons for my optimism.

One is based on chaos theory and organisational management. In any system where a sufficient degree of internal complexities and diversity exists, these become resources for change. This internal force can combine with external evidence from the failure of the market-based definition of quality in higher education and its ranking instruments.

Subsequently, higher education systems will bifurcate from the previous market logic and fall under the influence of more relevant ‘attractors’, leading to their reorganisation.

In addition, there is already evidence of such bifurcations. In the case of European higher education systems, for example, firm steps have been taken towards enhancement of teaching and learning over the past decade, as discussed in a recent European University Association report.

There is a fast-growing trend to balance universities’ activities in research and teaching. Some examples include: the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK and the EFFECT project of the European University Association and its 10 principles to enhance teaching and learning.

Similarly, the latest decision by Ghent University in Belgium to deliberately “step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities” is perhaps a telling sign that a shift from the hazardous market models is finally round the corner in our higher education systems.

Dr Juliette Torabian is a senior international adviser in education and sustainable development. Her research mainly focuses on comparative higher education (policy and governance), social justice and gender equality.