Higher education and the market

Student fees are set to rise to between £6000 and £9000 per year from 2012 (see Will students be Browned off?. But I’m sure you know that already! Not surprisingly, there has been considerable debate about the effects on student debt and whether potential students will be put off from applying to university. But there is another issue, explored in the article below. This is the question of the ‘marketisation’ of higher education.

With the exception of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) universities will no longer receive any teaching subsidy from the government. Teaching will have to be funded from student fees. This means that provision will depend on supply and demand. If there is a high demand for certain courses, then the courses will be financially viable for universities. If not, they will have to close (unless the university chooses to cross-subsidise them from other profitable courses).

This might be fine if the market for university places were perfectly competitive and if questions of inequality of access were fully taken into account. But the higher education market is not perfect. The article looks at some of these imperfections and why, therefore, a pure market system will fail to achieve the optimum allocation of university places.

Browne’s Gamble London Review of Books, Stefan Collini (4/11/10)


  1. What information failures are there in the market for higher education places?
  2. What externalities are involved in higher education and will this lead to an over or underprovision of higher education in a pure market system?
  3. Apart from externalities and information asymmetries, what other market failures apply to the market for student places in HE?
  4. What are the arguments for subsidising non-STEM subjects (as well as STEM ones)? Should these subsidies vary from course to course and from university to university?
  5. What is the best way of tackling the problem of unequal access to higher education?