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Willetts the conqueror (part 3): human capital

Originally published: HE Marketisation on March 8, 2018 by David Ridley (more by HE Marketisation)

The following post is the third installment of the multi-part review of David Willetts’, A University Life, you can find here the Introduction, Part 1 and Part 2. Parts 3 and Part 4 take a slightly different approach, diving deeper into the fundamental principles of marketisation, which centre on the conversion of qualitative experience and practice into quantitatively measurable outcomes, which can in turn become proxies for higher education’s exchange value.

Philosophically speaking, marketisation is premised on the idea that at its most basic level, education is a private good or investment, and therefore must be conceived of as a commodity to be produced and ultimately exchanged within the marketplace like any other commodity. Within this (idealised) capitalist system, a higher price indicates a higher quality education, much as a high price tag is supposed to indicate a faster or more luxurious car.

Within education, this assumption is expressed by market ideologues like Willetts via the theory of ‘human capital’, which states that while investments in people, mostly in the form of education or training, increase workplace productivity, this is an individual investment because:

(1) individuals can take this knowledge somewhere else, therefore it is not rational for firms to make this investment;

(2) individuals benefit directly from such investments through higher wages.

Therefore, individuals should pay for investments in their own human capital, i.e. education. This is, again, classic neoliberalism. Its goal is to shift as much of the social responsibility for reproducing the capitalist system – including the consequences of its inevitable failure, for example with austerity – onto individuals.

At a deeper level, however, the theory of human capital represents a need at the heart of marketisation to convert quality into quantity. This means two things:

(1) social learning processes and the tacit knowledge of teachers as professionals – i.e. qualitative experience – must be made into something that can be measured and managed – i.e. quantified – in order to create a surplus for universities-as-businesses (universities are still mostly charities, so cannot make a ‘profit’), funding further expansion towards their goal of becoming trans-national corporations (TNCs);

(2) that this commodification of learning, therefore, also results in a destruction of the ‘quality’ of learning and teaching – in the evaluative sense – where ‘real’ learning is replaced by a transaction through which knowledge is assumed to be ‘transferred’ from the teacher as ‘service provider’ to the student as ‘consumer’.

But, as any competent teacher knows, knowledge can’t just be ‘transmitted’ from one brain to another; knowledge cannot simply be bought like a fast car, it must be experienced and in most cases, earned. As even the 2015 Green Paper ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice‘ recognised, quality learning and teaching requires “focus, time, challenge and change” (p. 21). A fundamental contradiction between quality and quantity – reflecting the wider contradiction between use-value (social need) and exchange value (profit) within the capitalist system – is introduced into the heart of the system.

For Willetts, such quantification serves an additional purpose. By quantifying the ‘value added’ that a particular university , or even a particular course at a particular university, provides a prospective student, not only can that student decide whether this human capital investment is ‘worth it’, the government can calculate the ‘risk’ or the loan that it will give to this student in order to pay for their degree. This creates a new performance metric – the one metric to rule them all, as Andrew McGettigan colourfully argues – enabling the government to put financial pressure on courses and institutions under performing in terms of graduate outcomes.

HE as human capital investment

“Now instead of physical capital it is human capital that matters: this is what drives innovation,” Willetts writes (p. 267). Human Capital Theory (HCT) was first introduced by Chicago School economist and Nobel (Economics) Laureate Theodor W Schultz in the early 1960s to expand the idea of fixed capital investment – where firms invest in technology to increase the productivity of the labour process – to include human beings, i.e. workers.

According to Schultz’ version of HCT, economic growth “depends not only on the nation’s physical capital (such as roads), but also on the education and health of the labour pool“. Schultz asserted that the “rates of return on such human capital investment are greater than those for nonhuman capital investments, and that any short term losses incurred as a result of time taken out of careers for education or money invested in health care are acceptable risks as they produce greater long term economic and social gains for both individual and society”.

Willetts helpfully expresses this mixture of individual and societal benefits in a “quadrant” diagram originally created for a 2015 King’s College, University of London, policy paper ‘Issues and ideas on Higher education: Who benefits? Who pays?‘, reproduced in A University Education(p. 123):

| Capture | MR Online

Willetts’ reflection on the purpose of HE takes the form of a ‘straw man’ argument, within which HCT is posited as the only sensible alternative to the ‘purist’, i.e. elitist, position (held, it is implied, by academics), that a university education is an ‘end-in-itself’. This argument echoes the ‘market populism’ of his revisionist history of HE (see Part 1).

The value of universities must be explained and argued for. We should welcome the challenge of showing that higher education brings wider benefits – it means investigating evidence that could back up the intuitive case for higher education. ([p. 122)

Willetts’ case begins, as all HCT informed rationalisations should, with the benefits of a university education to individuals. Graduates are more politically aware and involved; they manage the transition to adulthood better, they gain ‘social capital’, i.e. social skills and connections that become important at a later date; and they ride out recessions and crises more effectively.

We are not saying that graduates are inherently better people. It is rather that going to university is a big experience and people who go through this experience are changed by it. (p. 126)

But this individual gain also ‘trickles down’ to the rest of society. As graduates also earn more, they pay more tax and claim less benefits. According to Willetts, graduates contribute an average (male and female) £300,000 extra on top of non-graduates over their life-times. Graduates also contribute more to the overall growth of the national economy:

Graduates represent 26% of all those in employment, but account for 35% of the UK’s human capital stock. A 1% increase in the share of the workforce with a degree increases long-term productivity by between 0.2% and 0.5%, so a third of labour market productivity growth from 1994-2005 can be attributed to rising number of graduates in the workforce. (p. 137)

Graduates also provide civic benefits. Following Gary Becker, he points to lower crime rates in cities with a higher proportion of graduates, quoting figures that show that a 16% increase in people educated to degree level results in £1bn savings in the cost of crime. Additionally, graduates are more socially engaged and co-operative, contributing more to social causes and charities. They also keep their parents “up to date” with the latest health advice.

At a regional level, universities act as ‘anchor institutions’ within economic ‘clusters’ (an idea he gets from Silicon Valley in the U.S.), driving not just economic growth but regeneration in post-industrial areas:

Cities like Portsmouth, Lincoln, Worcester, Winchester and Chester, which had lost their traditional industries or were just facing genteel decay, are being transformed by dynamic new universities. Now towns and cities like Shrewsbury and Hereford want to emulate their success and are actively campaigning for their own universities. (p. 140)

In one of his occasional self-described “fruity, claret-soaked Oakeshottian prose poems to these great institutions” (p. 276), Willetts argues that universities ultimately represent and protect the “social stock” human wisdom and are crucial to the preservation of the “coral reef” of human knowledge as a whole (p. 165).

Willetts concludes that all of this “adds up” to a “compelling case” for more people to go to university. “It is why the removal of controls on student numbers will count as one of the great social reforms of the Coalition Government of 2010-15”. (p. 141)

Signals and proxies

There is, however, a major problem with this argument. Willetts, himself points to one of the major critiques of HCT, signalling theory:

[Alison Wolf] argues that the purpose of education is not to learn things but to signal you are clever by getting through exams and getting into selective universities. So it does make sense to go to university because that is how in a modern economy you signal you are smart. But you don’t actually learn much – there is no improvement in human capital behind it. (p. 144)

The problem is, it is hard to say whether or not higher education really adds anything to an individual’s knowledge or experience. It might just be that HE acts as a ‘sorting mechanism’ for employers, who need a quick way of shortlisting potential applicants. In this theory, the ‘positional’ marker of having a degree (especially from an elite university) merely reflects existing divisions between rich and poor, created by prior advantages such as early pre-formal education, stimulating childhood environments, tutoring, etc. While HCT provides a meritocratic justification for the status quo,  the reality of a two or three tier class system in HE (see Part 2) turns a degree into a reasonably crude marker of class.

While this is not in itself a problem for neoliberals like Willetts, because he and others have made claims about the quality of higher education – specifically that students aren’t necessarily getting a ‘good deal’ out of their £9250 purchase – some way of measuring and presenting the quality of HE must be invented.

The quality of teaching is the biggest problem facing our universities. I have heard too many horror stories of students not getting serious personal academic contact and desperate for more academic input and challenge. When I met with student representatives at individual universities they were not demanding Marxist revolution or the nationalisation of the banks: they were asking for smaller seminars and for their work to be returned promptly. Indeed, the lack of prompt academic feedback is students’ biggest single source of frustration. (p. 204)

Enter the 2015 Green Paper, ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice‘. This represented a watershed moment in the history of marketisation. It laid out the plan to simplify the entry of alternative providers, suggested that universities should be exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and that they should be able to alter their own corporate form at will. But its primary purpose was to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the ingenious solution to the problem outlined above that would also manufacture competition in the absence of a price mechanism.

The Green Paper echoed Willetts’ concerns about teaching quality – let’s leave a side the question of what exactly he knows about teaching – that while there were “many examples of excellent teaching within the higher education system”, the National Student Survey (NSS) data suggested that “teaching quality was variable”. Without a functioning price mechanism – as the income contingent loan system meant that students never experience fees as a purchase – imperfect information about teaching quality, course content and graduate outcomes made it hard for prospective students to make decisions on which courses to take or where to study.

We know that information about what they can expect from university is crucial to young people making life-changing decisions. We recognise that higher education is not the only option for young people, so it is essential that they have the best information and support available to be able to make these huge decisions. To be able to make the best choices about where and what to study, individuals need access to robust, timely and objective information regarding the quality of teaching they are likely to experience and what this is likely to mean for their future employment. (Green Paper, p. 11)

Despite “an array of criticisms” of the NSS – including questions about the methodology of the NSS, accusations of students using it strategically (and even in racist and sexist ways), and universities using it to bully staff – the Green Paper’s claims about the uneven quality of English HE were based entirely on its results.

In 2015, more than half of providers performed significantly below expected levels in at least one element of the NSS.

The NSS records scores for ‘assessment and feedback’ and these have traditionally been the area of the student experience with the lowest satisfaction levels. This area has seen focused effort by providers and is now at 74% (from 73% in 2014 and 64% in 2008).

Students are also concerned about value for money, with one third of undergraduates paying higher fees in England believing their course represents very poor or poor value for money. At the same time, 75% of students think they ‘probably’ or definitely ‘did not’ have enough information on how tuition fees are spent. (Green Paper, p. 12)

The solution – despite the fact that the Green Paper also drew attention to the shortcomings of league tables – was to create another ranking mechanism like the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The TEF mirrored the REF almost exactly in its structure: ‘excellence’ was to be measured by a series of metrics, as well as by a panel of experts who would review qualitative submissions.

According to the Green Paper, students had identified in their NSS feedback a number of “clear priorities”: students wanted “more hours of teaching”, “better training for lecturers”, “better learning facilities” and smaller sized teaching groups. These ‘demands’ became the basis for the three core areas for the TEF to assess: “teaching quality; learning environment; and student outcomes and learning gain”.

This all sounds fine, and in the more detailed exposition of each of these areas there is much to agree with. Teaching quality is very much focused on how to get the best out of students, there is the suggestion of “parity of status between teaching and research careers, and explicit career path and other rewards” and that students should be well supported and should actually get something out of their (expensive) education.

But then something strange happens. The Green Paper proposes three “common metrics” based on “existing data collections” that will form the basis of the actual assessment mechanism of the TEF that seem to fall well short of addressing any of these lofty goals:

  • Employment/destination – from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Surveys (outcomes), and, from early 2017, make use of the results of the HMRC data match.
  • Retention/continuation – from the UK Performance Indicators which are published by Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) (outcomes)
  • Student satisfaction indicators – from the National Student Survey (teaching quality and learning environment) (Green Paper, p. 33)

As indicated by this quote, the NSS is on its own supposed to measure both teaching quality and the quality of the learning environment, with student outcomes being also reduced to purely quantitative measures (we will return to the employment outcomes data below). However, as mentioned above, the NSS is widely criticised for its methodological shortcomings.

One particularly high profile criticism of the NSS came in 2008 from Lee Harvey, who quit as the Higher Education Academy’s (HEA) director of research and evaluation after a letter by him was published in the Times Higher Education magazine which slammed the NSS as “bland” and “methodologically worthless”.

As Harvey went on to explain, institutions and academics are good at manipulation: “While quality assurance is flexible and can be adapted to minimise the game playing, the NSS is a simplistic device that is easy to out manoeuvre.” “What we have is an illusion of a survey of student views … that is so superficial and so open to abuse as to be useless,” he added.

These criticisms seem to undermine the government’s commitments in the Green Paper (p. 31) that “TEF assessments should be based on criteria that are straightforward and robust and are easily understood by students, employers and other stakeholders”. To be fair, the Green Paper (p. 31) admits the shortcomings of its proposals: “we recognise that these metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measures of quality and learning gain and there are issues around how robust they are”.

Crucially, the whole issue comes down to the fact that the government actually has no idea what ‘teaching excellence’ – i.e. quality teaching – actually is: “There is no one broadly accepted definition of ‘teaching excellence’. In practice it has many interpretations and there are likely to be different ways of measuring it.” (Green Paper, p. 21)

Quality into quantity

At the most fundamental level, marketisation requires something that can be understood purely in terms of its use-value – education – be converted into something that can be exchanged and therefore rationalised in productive terms to produce a profit. The Green Paper is a fascinating document as it shows the government  grappling with this problem for all to see.

Within a few sentences of admitting that it had no idea what teaching excellence looked like, the government also realises that “excellence is not something achieved easily or without focus, time, challenge and change”. This is significant, as it recognises that teaching is in fact a process, which may actually need to go beyond vacuous notions of ‘student satisfaction’ – i.e. utilitarian pleasure – and be supported effectively at an institutional level.

Bill Readings, who tragically died at the age of 34 in the plane crash, provided a devastating and now classic undressing of the concept of excellence. For Readings ‘excellence’ was a “meaningless” and “non-referential” unit of equivalence which allowed for the quantification, measurement, comparison, and evaluation of heterogeneous elements that make up the university as an institution.

It is excellence that allows the combination on a single scale of such utterly heterogeneous features as finances and the make-up of the student body. A measure of the flexibility of excellence is that it allows the inclusion of reputation as one category among others in a ranking which is in fact definitive of reputation. The metalepsis that allows reputation to be 20 percent of itself is permitted by the intense flexibility of excellence; it allows a category mistake to masquerade as scientific objectivity … Excellence is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference of function, thus creating an internal market. (p. 27)

Writing 20 years before the Green Paper (in a Canadian context), Readings argued that “to understand the University as a contemporary institution requires some reflection on what the appeal to excellence may, or may not, mean”. Essentially, it is the very meaninglessness of excellence which allows it to function as a unit equivalence, flattening all value-based distinctions between and within university, sidestepping the question of quality altogether.

Excellence is not a fixed standard of judgement but a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else. An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane….The point is that no one knows what excellence is but that everyone has his or her own idea of what it is. And once excellence has been generally accepted as an organising principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions. (p. 33)

For Readings, excellence is used to “deflect attention from the questions of what quality and pertinence might be, who actually are the judges of a relevant or a good university, and by what authority they become those judges”. (p. 32)

However, as soon as the problem of quality is sidestepped – through its quantification through metrics – another problem appears. The commodification of higher education through the introduction of fees and loans – and the reduction of quality to student satisfaction and instrumental ‘outcomes’ – actually undermines the quality of teaching and learning.

For paradigm setting theorists like Paul Ramsden – the first executive of the HEA – learning is a social process and teaching a skilled profession. Ramsden, in his groundbreaking 2003 book Learning to Teach in Higher Educationwrote that teaching “takes years of practice to do well, and even then, you will not have learned enough”. Focusing on the process of learning while constantly reflecting on your own practice is an incredibly demanding skill, as any teacher knows very well.

Ramsden introduced the influential concept of student ‘approaches to learning’, designed to replace the pseudo-scientific U.S. ideas of individual ‘learning styles’. Quality teaching is all about getting students to move from ‘surface’ approaches – focused on purely instrumental outcomes such as passing exams, encouraging learners to memorise rather than understand, which Ramsden describes as “disastrous” as students forget everything anyway – to ‘deep’ approaches, which are all about students actively making meaning out of learning material and relating what is learned to personal experience.

Teaching can be improved by basing methods on this idea of learning as an experiential and meaningful, and by finding ways to challenge students to commit themselves fully to this process. One conclusion that is drawn from this theory is that lectures – which are based on a ‘transmission’ idea of learning, where knowledge can be transferred frictionlessly from one mind to another, as if from a jug into a cup – encourage surface not deep learning.

The commodification of learning, which tries to persuade students to think they can purchase knowledge and that it is exactly the job of teaching to ‘transmit’ this knowledge as quickly as possible into their brains so they can pass their exams and get a good job, is clearly also ‘disastrous’ for the quality of this learning. Rather than surface learning being a result of poorly designed courses and lessons, it has become the structural condition for the marketised university.

Fundamentally, the commodification of learning is in direct contradiction with the profession of teaching itself – the former basically says there is no need for teaching, it is merely the exchange of like for like (the money commodity for the knowledge commodity) while the latter insists that knowledge is the reward of hard work and only after the knowledge gained is itself experienced as meaningful by the individual.

This is why the line from the Green Paper – “excellence is not something achieved easily or without focus, time, challenge and change” – was so surprising. It encapsulates the material contradiction at the heart of marketisation: higher education is a social activity that cannot be commodified without changing the very nature of that activity, by effectively destroying it.

Willetts’ anti-vision of HE

Back to Willetts. He has an ulterior motive for the quantification of higher education. The ‘value-added’ of higher education – measured by the amount of money that a graduate can expect to make on top of those who do not go to university, also called the ‘value added’ of a university education – holds the key to not just the rationalisation of HE expansion as human capital investment but also the solution to the never ending debate about the ‘cost’ of the student loans system to the government, and therefore the taxpayer.

Willetts estimates that the graduate premium – averaged out over a person’s lifetime – for men is £168,000 and for women £252,000. Showing both the gender pay gap and the importance of university for redressing this in some way, non-graduates lifetime earnings are £606,000 for men and £475,000 for women: “There have been a series of research papers going back a decade which, even through they use different methods, all tell the same story of a substantial graduate premium in the UK in the £120,000 – £160,000 range,” he explains (p. 129).

Overall the evidence is overwhelmingly that graduates are more likely to be in graduate jobs and better paid for doing them, with an even greater gain for postgraduates. (p. 136)

Andrew McGettigan summarises this vision of HE as ‘human capital investment’ as the “transformation of HE into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings”. This agrees with the analysis in Part 2 of this review and also above that marketisation reaffirms the stratification of HE into elite and working class forms. For the privileged, HE is a marker of distinction and a way into elite circles, for the rest, it is a way of standing out in the job market and maybe getting an interview.

But McGettigan also sees something more sinister going in this drive to identify the graduate premium of HE. In line with the anti-democratic way that market reform has proceeded in general (see Part 1), the Coalition government “quietly put in place a series of measures designed to support a new performance metric: repayment of loans by course and institution”. McGettigan describes this, echoing Lord of the Rings and painting Willetts as the Sauron of HE, as the “metric to dominate all others”.

McGettigan points out that Part Six of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act – which received Royal Assent at the end of March 2015 – proposes amendments to existing legislation to allow the co-ordination of data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

“Potential applicants to colleges and universities will in future benefit from information on the employability and earnings’ of each institution’s alumni and alumnae,” McGettigan writes, paraphrasing the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, which adds that the measures “will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students”.

The Act is the “latest move” in a new phase of tertiary education policy, according to McGettigan. In 2012, a new question was added to the annual Labour Force Survey to allow the “analysis of long-run earnings outcomes from specific institutions”. In July 2014, Lord Young’s report for government, ‘Enterprise for All‘, “recommended that each course at each institution should have to publish a Future Earnings and Employment Record so that students can assess the full costs and likely benefits of specific courses at specific institutions”.

The outcome of these various backdoor measures has been the Longditudinal Employment Outcomes (LEO) data-set – UK Government released statistics matching subjects that students have studied with the employment outcomes related to these subjects five years after graduation  – of which the latest ‘experimental’ release came out in June last year to complement the DLHE data that currently forms an essential part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

| Distribution of median | MR Online

The graph shows median graduate earnings based on subject studied, with Creative Arts and Design at the bottom of the table, barely reaching the national average for full-time employees of £28,028. Humanities subjects vary in terms of graduate earnings, with education and languages sitting in the middle of the scale malongside the physical and biological sciences. Based on the highest earnings of graduates studying particular subjects, economics and business studies can help students achieve the highest incomes alongside law, while at the top of the scale, medicine and dentistry far outstrips all other subjects in terms of earnings after graduation, with the lowest incomes in those categories being higher than the median graduate incomes of all other subjects.

In a briefing note for the University and College Union (UCU), I wrote, based on McGettigan’s analysis:

As it focuses on economic value over social or subjective value, the LEO data is subject tomisuse by both a government keen to push marketisation further through the sector and by vice-chancellors desperate to gain advantage before new providers fully appear to disrupt the status quo. This kind of data allows higher education to be conceptualised as ‘variable human capital investment’, which is to say as a private investment by individuals in future economic prosperity and an arms length government system for the production of skilled labour to meet the needs of the wider economy. Individuals and institutions are rewarded or punished according to how wisely they invest; education is reduced to cost-benefit analysis. For UCU, the immediate danger is that VCs will anticipate this data being used in future TEFs, and close courses that do not lead to high graduate earning scores.

This is what McGettigan calls Willetts’ ‘anti-vision’ of HE: “let the market decide what should be offered”.

But Willetts had something far more specific in mind for the LEO data. In the ‘income contingent loan’ model, the government promises to write-off a proportion of student loans based on graduate earnings. Projections of how much this write-off will cost are constantly being revised, and with these revisions, tweaks are applied to the terms and conditions of the loans.

For example, in 2015 the percentage of the value of student loans expected to be lost through the 30 year write off went up to 45%, edging uncomfortably close to the 48.6% figure that would signal that the new system would as a whole cost more than the previous model of direct public funding. As a result, the government froze the repayment threshold at £21,000 taking the ‘RAB charge’ (the government accounting term for the projected cost of loans) back down to between 20-25%.

Last year, in response to pressure from students – who were responding positively to Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees and loans – Theresa May raised the repayment threshold to £25,000, which also puts the RAB charge back up to 45%, once again dangerously close to the 48.6% figure referred to above.

But LEO data promises an alternative method of managing the ‘risk’ of these loans. As McGettigan explains, student loans “go out into the world and the manner in which they are repaid generates information”. Graduates then become the “bearers of the units of account by which HE performance is set into a system of accountability”. This allows the government to calculate the level of repayments that a particular graduate of a particular course is likely to produce. McGettigan writes:

As Willetts had previously argued in 2012, the figures for non-repayment of loans in the departmental accounts, that 45 per cent, is an aggregate for a sector comprising over 100 HEIs, 300 FE colleges offering HE, and 100 private providers ‘designated’ as eligible for student support. This overall non-repayment figure masks variation in performance by subject (e.g. medicine and law graduates repay more), institution and sex.

While he was Minister for Universities and Science, Willetts indicated his enthusiasm for such a disaggregation of the figures: “I expect that, in the future, as the data accrue, the policy debate will be about the [non-repayment rate] for individual institutions … the actual Exchequer risk from lending to students at specific universities”.

In ‘A University Education’, Willetts has lost none of his enthusiasm for this ‘anti-vision’ of HE, and goes even further. He suggests that, as the government is currently seeking to sell off the student loan ‘asset’ in order to reduce the stock of net Government debt (the Public Sector Net Debt), universities should buy the loans off the government.

Universities would pay the value of the loan minus RAB charge – what Willetts refers to as the ‘market value’ of that universities’ students’ loans – thus providing an opportunity for the university to make some money if they get more of it back than expected.

Arguably, this much more of an ‘anti-vision’ of HE than that described by McGettigan in 2015, with universities becoming debt collectors, incentivised to collect this debt through the profit motive. Willetts washes this idea as an incentive for universities to make sure their graduates good jobs, but, in financialising universities, it is just as likely that these public institutions then begin speculating with these debts in the manner that many financial institutions did before the 2008 Financial Crisis, until the inherently unstable system that such speculation created came crashing down.

In an even more dystopian version of this anti-vision, universities could manipulate this financialised ‘game’ even further by giving graduates jobs at the university. Then, if these graduate employees were to not pay their loans back within a satisfactory time, the university could tweak their employment terms and conditions to make a greater return on the original investment, turning the original loan into a really cheap loan from the student to the university, which the student then pays back through indentured labour.

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