Various governments now regularly produce statistics purportedly showing the economic value of education as a trade-able sector, worth billions and competing alongside coal and iron ore exports. However, the nature of the ‘product’ of education is much more like a Louis Vuitton handbag, according to Paul Campos:
“In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don't have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one's children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signalling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.”
Here in UK, for example, tuition fees were raised to £9,000, making it an extremely expensive proposition – however, rather than people deciding not to go to university, demand keeps on rising. And the mechanism for higher education’s ‘positionality’ is the university rankings, which now seem to be the driver for university strategies the world over..
I think Campos makes a convincing case about the nature of the ‘product’ of Higher Education with reference to positionality and Veblen goods – and it’s important to clearly describe what is happening, just as the course team at the Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’ MOOC helped many of us to do. However, my main disagreement with the proposition is at the level of values and in my mind, education should never be seen as a product, any kind of product. Education is a process, something that living, breathing, important human beings experience personally and existentially over time and to reduce education to a product to be branded, sold and shipped out to those that are able and willing to pay is to reduce humanity itself to a commodity. Once that happens, in a very real sense, we lose our humanity. So…
Education is not a handbag
Education is not like coal.
It is not like iron ore.
And neither is it a product
In a professorial price war
Conspicuous and competing
On your shoulder swinging
The keeper of your
Sunglasses, safety pins and soul
In the endless goal
Of more, more, more.
Education is not a handbag.
You can’t forget education
As you leave for work.
You can’t leave education on the bus.
Or in the pub when you’ve had too much.
However, education can in fact be stolen.
Not in the street, snatched with violence
Leaving you unsettled and frightened,
Shaking from the shock of unexpected absence.
Education can be stolen slowly over time
A little here and a little there
So that we don’t see it
So that we don’t shout ‘stop thief’
And before we know it, the thieves in their den consult their league tables and share out their spoils, selling education to the highest bidder, and the un-educated watch helpless, open-mouthed and dumb as the educational consumers preen and primp with their shiny world-class Louis Vuitton qualification in their back pocket like fools.