The Education Market in Our Big Society

 Author:Hugh I have just spotted an article in the Big Issue highlighting the new MSc in Social Enterprise offered by Glasgow Caledonian.  Delighted to see one of our...


I have just spotted an article in the Big Issue highlighting the new MSc in Social Enterprise offered by Glasgow Caledonian.  Delighted to see one of our higher education institutions offering teaching in alternative forms of enterprise and let’s hope more follow.  I suspect the author of the piece and/or headline writer would certainly benefit from some of that teaching.

I’ll skip my usual pedantic point about referring to “non-profit” organisations (the legal structure is non profit distributing) but I do have to question the statement “voluntary groups and charities seeking training  in how to generate more funding “  as a summary of what the MSc is trying to do to help social enterprises.  Learning how to generate new/more income streams whilst supplying a socially needed and ethical product or service would be how I would perceive a sustainable social enterprise heading.  Learning how to find more grants or donations is not what I understand social enterprise to be about.

If that comes across as a bit too semantic, I apologise, but we do need to remember the enterprise bit of social enterprise.  Just like co-ops (democratic social enterprises), they need to be viable businesses to continue to pursue their social objectives.  The enterprise issue does lead me into the main topic I wished to cover.  There was an article in the Guardian ( which again raised this issue of how applicable enterprise models and market economics is to certain areas of society and social activity.


This article reminds us that Higher Education is not simply about undergraduates and highlights the importance of research.  It fits with my perception of our universities and colleges developing our knowledge base, the intellectual capital of UK PLc whilst also investing in our human assets.

I’m not clear if the author is arguing for no fees when he states “why not strip out all the sections relating to undergraduate fees and access”, if so, I am all for student equality across the UK.

However, there is a worrying undertone, a seeming blind acceptance that the market will provide the answer in education.

The article is peppered with business like references – “the universities are open for business”, “establish a market, putting students in the driving seat” and “higher education institutions are a substantial export service sector generating significant revenue”.  I am not aware of the author’s academic discipline but I assume the collapse of our financial sector has not passed him by.

The deregulation (and de-mutualisation) of this sector was supposed to increase competition and offer more choice to the benefit of the consumer which doesn’t quite fit with the recent report on the banking and financial sector.

I’m not against competition and as an active member of the Co-operative Movement I’m all for consumer (or worker) control of enterprise but those who advocate turning our higher education institutes into the supply side of a market in education awards should tread carefully.  If I am buying a degree at £27,000 (over 3 years) then you better make sure it is a First Class one because I am the consumer and I rule.  In fact, you better get your Marketing Department working on “Super Firsts” for those able and willing to pay more for their product.  It’s a market niche that can’t be ignored if you are going to drive up market share and revenues.  (Interestingly, a conversation with an F.E. lecturer indicated that this was an attitude he had encountered from some overseas students.  They were paying for their award and were slightly taken aback at the perceived rigour of some of the assessment they were required to undertake).

Meanwhile, back at the degree factory, for all this to work, you need the leadership and entrepreneurial skills to drive this business model forward.  To do that, this executive elite need to be incentivised which in turn will mean the pursuit of a listing to offer share options. 

If the disaster that was our financial services sector is a pointer to the future then we will end up with a higher education oligopoly offering little choice and little customer satisfaction but plenty of short term financial rewards for the senior executive teams and professionals who help them develop this unsustainable business model.  It might, however, produce a flow of multi-millionaires for future Westminster Cabinets.

If the Treasury have any foresight, they should be creating the bailout fund now.

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