Should universities be chasing the “popular courses” to stay afloat? And what difference does it make to a course to have it taught by many hourly-paid tutors?

The government argues that markets “drive up quality”. I have recently read articles and attended seminars concerned with whether higher education has really become a market or a quasi-market. These are usually fairly academic debates revolving around economists’ definitions and the listing of fixed, rigged or constrained elements that make the sector somewhat unlike any market most of us would recognise. But never mind the theory, what about the practical consequences? Institutions and their managers are starting to behave as if they were in a market, regardless of what economists think: this behaviour is affecting quality, and these effects will not always be what one might hope for.

Increasingly I hear vice-chancellors saying that their institutions need to be “fast on their feet” and “responsive to the market”. That can’t be bad, can it? Let’s consider what is going on where universities are rapidly axeing courses that are not especially popular, or combining courses in a way that might make them more popular. Given fixed student numbers overall, this can only mean larger numbers on the courses that are left, euphemised as “economies of scale”. Getting rid of permanent teachers is an expensive, protracted business, so you can forget the idea of increased resources being made available to the surviving courses any time soon.

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