Neoliberalism, Marketisation, and Higher Education – University of West London public professorial lecture

I attended this talk as part of my employer University of West London’s public lecture series, to which all are invited and welcome.

Roger Brown is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University, and was previously Vice Chancellor of Southampton Solent University. His work focuses on higher education, public policy, and inequality. An audio recording of the lecture is linked above; Brown spoke without using slides so audio-only works OK.

My university has a focus on widening participation, which I believe benefits society in many ways including raising aspiration and attainment, and social mobility. My interest in this talk as an education worker was to understand better how marketisation has affected those aspects of education that promote equality, social mobility, and the development of informed and democratically-engaged citizens.

The analytical parts of the talk concentrated on links between education policy and political economy, with a foundational argument that marketisation of education is how politicians and policy-makers have employed neoliberal praxes to reshape higher education provision—alongside almost all social relations. Brown dated the commencement of marketisation of English higher education from 1979 to the present day, starting with the reforms of Margaret Thatcher’s government and continued through successive Conservative and Labour administrations: those of market deregulation, privatisation, and undermining of the power of organised labour. This will be a familiar story to many of us; policy-wise the basic idea is that education policy is formed from an assumption that the primary purpose of education is economic, and that it should be both valued and measured in those terms.

Briefly, Brown went far beyond what I had expected and provided us a scathing critique of neoliberal economic praxis. He based his argument on the inconsistent delivery of promised economic benefits under neoliberal governance; the contradictions in the dependence on government to introduce and reinforce neoliberal policies; and the incoherence of neoliberal economic theory itself. However, the effect of marketisation goes beyond simple competition for students, staff, and funding and the uncertainty this creates for universities. Brown argues there has been an increase in ‘distance’ in prestige and a corresponding ‘social distance’ between different universities as a result of neoliberalism, with a direct negative impact on both the creativity of education provision and on widening participation. Counter to expectation, rather than encouraging more diverse and creative ways of delivering higher education we see the opposite emerging: selective universities tend to play it safe and converge on a very similar offer as each other, with elite universities marketing very traditional university experiences to prospective customers.

Considering academic libraries directly we see, for example, how the instability of competition can generate uncertainty for libraries reliant on multi-year subscription deals for information resources and software, and the effect that gold Open Access as a preferred model has had on scholarly communication support and infrastructure. Alongside the effect of introducing real or ersatz markets to education, as Davies argues neoliberalism brings in a tendency to see and understand everything in marketised terms, “expanding the reach of market-based principles and techniques of evaluation” (2017, p. 22). The problems and effects of treating information as a commodity, particularly for scholarly communication, is addressed in detail by Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

More fundamentally to society, Brown asked us to consider the effect of how universities “being treated as plcs” may lead to them losing public trust in their knowledge creation role, here drawing on Giroux:

“The notion of the university as a center of critique and a vital democratic public sphere that cultivates the knowledge, skills and values necessary for the production of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of neoliberal subjects.” (2014, p.56)

As to what education workers and higher education as a whole can do about this the scale of the challenge seems huge, as Brown said, “We need to aim at rebuilding civil society.” No pressure. Brown argued specifically for increased solidarity between universities and leadership within the sector, particularly for Vice-Chancellors to be visible and willing to speak on issues affecting society rather than narrowly concentrating on issues such as funding of research and teaching.

Afterwards in conversation, I asked Brown how to maintain hope if one loves higher education and wants to work within it for say the next 25-30 years; he said the best thing would be to leave higher education as things probably won’t get better for a generation. I don’t plan to take this advice, but Brown’s refreshing honesty in his talk and generosity with his time to unpack issues raised has provided me with me a huge amount to reflect on and thereby inform practice.


With thanks to Kevin Sanders for a suggested addition to the text.


Davies, W. (2017) The limits of neoliberalism: authority, sovereignty, and the logic of competition. London: Sage.

Giroux, H. (2014) Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Chicago, IL: Haymarket.

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1). doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

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