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Consumer Education? @timeshighered

Mill, Smith and Friedman: look away now. Coalition plans to marketise the academy are a corruption of laissez-faire ideology. Martin Cohen lambasts a liberal approach to ‘liberalism’

And lo, another great socialist shibboleth is cast off. Half a century after Lord Robbins proposed that university education in the UK should be free to anyone capable of benefiting from it, the descendants of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith are back, applying free-market economics to education. But could their triumph also be their folly? Could today’s reformers have lost their liberalism and forgotten the principles of laissez-faire?

The government’s plan, simply put, is to withdraw almost all of the block grant that it awards to universities to support their teaching, about £4 billion a year. As Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, wrote in the London Review of Books last month: “This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.”

But this is even more than an overturning of socialism and the post-war consensus: it is a reversal of the principles of classical liberalism and laissez-faire economics.

Mill says unambiguously in Principles of Political Economy (1848) that education “is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for its people”, something “to which the reasons of the non-interference principle do not necessarily or universally extend”.

Education, then, is not a realm where the consumer should be anointed king. Rather, Mill says: “In the matter of education, the intervention of government is justifiable, because the case is not one in which the interests and judgement of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the commodity.”

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By admin

Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst  (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.

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