University reform in the UK can be understood in light of the following dilemma: the system must expand if it is to meet the demand for skill in the labour market, but the more it expands the less it fulfills its other major function of reproducing social division.
This is crucial because the transformation of higher education being implemented under the rubric of austerity indicates that austerity is not in the first instance about cutting spending. The evidence of past austerity projects demonstrates that cuts are a means rather than the primary objective, which is social engineering. In the case of higher education, a coalition government has cut state funding for universities while raising fees, on the pretext of debt consolidation. However, the major effects will be firstly to reorganise the system along market lines, re-pivoting the relationship between the student and the institution as a consumer-enterprise one, and secondly to reproduce social divisions on a new basis.
The coalition’s policies are based on a report by Lord Browne, a former chief executive of BP with no experience in higher education. The practice of hiring businessmen to reorganise the public sector runs deep in the neoliberal DNA. Since it is assumed that everything should be run like a competitive enterprise, who could know more about this than businessmen?