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Manifesto for the Public University

[OED A public declaration or proclamation, written or spoken; esp. a printed declaration, explanation, or justification of policy issued by a head of state, government, or political party or candidate, or any other individual or body of individuals of public relevance, as a school or movement in the Arts]


The global financial crisis and measures taken to ameliorate it have given rise to extensive government deficits. A new fiscal crisis of the state has emerged with governments directing their actions at cutting spending and, thereby, reducing welfare benefits and public spending. The current planned spending cuts in the UK of 25% over a single parliament represent the largest reduction in the state budget attempted by any government since those scheduled as part of the ‘Geddes axe’ of 1922-3 (which aimed at 20% and achieved 9%), while the more recent cuts in Canada were also less severe and occurred over two parliaments (History and Policy . In this context, neo-liberal ideologies of governance are dominant; markets are to be made to work more effectively and bring about the beneficial consequences believed to be intrinsic to them.

The recent Browne Review Report, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education ( advocates, in effect, the privatisation of higher education in England (it is not clear if the same policies will be adopted in other parts of the UK). A drastic reduction in public funding of undergraduate taught courses will be accompanied by an increase in the fees paid by students, with only some courses (those identified as having ‘national priority’ and consisting largely of courses in science, technology and medicine) receiving public funds.  In the context, of spending cuts in other areas ranging from ‘ring-fencing’ in the health service up to a high of 40%, this is the largest cut of all at 80%.

It is evident from the Browne Report that Universities in the UK are set for a period of major reorganisation and turmoil. The closest precedent is probably reforms in the 1960s associated with the Robbins Report and the first major expansion of the number of Universities, which was also associated with student unrest and calls for the democratisation of University education. The present reorganisation also identifies students as the agents of reform, but this time in their role as consumers of education. It is argued that, by paying fees, students will be empowered as consumers and this will give rise to better quality teaching and courses on offer will reflect student demand. In this way, without proper public discussion, a fundamental transformation of the role of Universities is being proposed, justified by a fiscal crisis.

Robert Nelson (2001) has recently argued that economics should be thought of as a form of theological argument. He does not mean this unsympathetically, arguing that economics articulates the ‘public interest’ against the ‘sectional interests’ that otherwise beset government policy-making. The key article of faith is the competitive market as a mechanism that serves the public interest and allows outcomes determined by the subjective preferences of individuals. This faith is very evident in the Browne Review. The proposed removal of the current cap on student fees and the withdrawal of state funding from undergraduate degree programmes in arts, humanities and social sciences represents the privatisation of English higher education.

The report argues that a market for education will increase quality and expand choice by leading to a diversification of institutions, including the emergence of a group of Universities able to achieve premium fees at higher than the going rate. The report is sanguine that the going rate will be about £6000 (in itself this will involve less money for Universities to teach those courses, despite the cost to students nearly doubling). However, it is also evident that there is an expectation that ‘new providers’ (including for-profit companies) will enter the field and undercut fees, such that the real expectation is for a three-tier system, appropriate to the aspirations of different categories of students.

The Browne Review notes that the UK has among the highest returns to higher education among OECD countries (and, if Browne is implemented, it will have the lowest public spending on higher education) and, thus, that it is appropriate that graduates should pay for what will provide them with such benefits. Of course, the UK is also a country that has experienced widening inequalities over the last decades and stands as one of the most unequal countries in the OECD comparator group. As Wilkinson and Picket (2009) have demonstrated, general indicators of happiness and well-being are inversely correlated with inequalities. Indeed, the Browne Review implicitly endorses such findings, stating that, “Graduates enjoy substantial health benefits – a reduced likelihood of smoking, and lower incidence of obesity and depression” (page 14).

The consequences of inequality for those not fortunate to go to University is no longer a consideration. Instead, equality of opportunities will substitute for the effects of widening inequalities of outcomes. Nor is it recognised that the creation of a three tier system of higher education will itself create education as a ‘positional’ good in which inequalities in access to the privileged tier will serve to reproduce wider social hierarchies. At the same time, the consequence of graduates paying for their own higher education will be to reinforce their belief that they deserve the higher rewards.

In 1931, R.H. Tawney began his book Equality with Mathew Arnold’s observation that. “in England inequality is almost a religion” (1964: 33).  With the current government we can begin to understand that it is this religion that will be the ‘sacred canopy’ of its proposed big society. On the one hand, its ministers deplore the generational conflict over resources which seems to have involved an older generation securing better pensions and other benefits that will be paid for by a younger generation and then be denied to them in turn. It is now seeking to do the same with higher education. The costs of higher education might be derived from higher general taxation, but that is anathema to past beneficiaries of largesse.

The Browne Review identifies only two important functions for education, namely its contribution to economic growth and its contribution to the human capital of individuals. What is missing is any understanding of its contribution to the public. Writing in 1927, John Dewey argued that a core issue for democracy was the ‘public and its problems’. Dewey begins from the argument that the individual is necessarily a social being involved in ‘associative life’, and that this is true of what are conventionally regarded as private actions as well as of public actions. Individuals form associations, and they are formed by associations. At the same time, the multiplicity of associations and their interconnected actions have consequences, which can be addressed both by new associations and by new institutions of the public. The University is one such institution that facilitates the development of a public, through its role in education about associated life and in developing the capacity for full participation.

Dewey sets out a vision of the ‘big society’, similar to that argued by David Cameron, as the principle that animate government policy. However, Dewey also has as his target the pathology of liberal individualism and the idea of the individual free of associated life, where ‘there is no such thing as society’. For Dewey, this idea is connected to that of the ‘naturalness’ of economic laws (embodied in market exchanges) and, thus, to the idea that politically made collective decisions are necessarily problematic and should be minimised. In this sense, it is precisely the ideology of liberal individualism, according to Dewey, that suggests that the market can replace public institutions in the expression of social life.

Ironically, the arguments that are used to recommend the privatisation of higher education and a reduced public role for Universities are also arguments that invoke ‘the public’ as a collectivity of tax-payers. The burden of spending falling upon ‘the public’ should be reduced, while we are reminded that ‘we are all in this together’. The Government invokes the ‘Big Society’, but its primary figure is the ‘private individual’.

The public requires a different vision for higher education, truly a vision that truly expresses a ‘big society’, and where, “the essential need … is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the problem of the public” (Dewey 1927: 208).



John Dewey (1927) The Public and Its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.

Robert H. Nelson (2001) Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press.

R.H. Tawney (1964 [1931]) Equality. London: Allen and Unwin.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.