Higher Education: Commodity or Right?

English: Study of rising college costs due to ...

English: Study of rising college costs due to cost shifting from state funding to tuition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether one considers higher education to be a commodity or a human right is often determined these days by one’s philosophical, ethical, political, or economic outlook.  There are divergent views on this issue which spark polarization and fierce controversy.  In many western countries  higher education was treated as a right for many years and some countries are still trying to maintain this tradition although it places an increasingly large financial burden on their governments.  The reality is that, today, higher education has become a commodity which is for sale.  Certificates, diplomas and degrees are now saleable items of high value and they are in great demand in the national and global marketplace.  Developed countries create vast income by exporting education.

The main drivers of this commodification or commercialization of higher education are scarce public funds, the knowledge-based economy, the prevalence of information and communications technology, and globalization.  Many governments are now unable to fund post-secondary (tertiary) education and they are now charging their students expensive tuition fees.  Austerity measures imposed by governments in these harsh economic times have led to deep cuts in higher education budgets.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed on December 10, 1948, declares in Article 26 that “Everyone has the right to education” and further declares that higher education “shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

Since higher education is a right, governments must do everything in their power to facilitate it and make it accessible to working-class and lower middle-class students.  Higher education is a public good which empowers individuals and communities to understand, relate to, and improve their existence.  It is an avenue for individual, social and economic development.  In the interests of preserving democracy and equality of opportunity in higher education, governments need to prioritize the provision of higher education for students in the lower socio-economic brackets.

Institutions and teachers have become providers and students have become consumers in the present and growing higher education commodity market.  This has changed the nature of teacher-student relationships in a negative way.  The marketplace has also changed the value we place on different subjects and forms of knowledge.  Knowledge and skills are being taught more and more for instrumental reasons such as getting specific jobs.  Private companies are becoming more and more involved in the funding and curricula of higher education.  In this context only knowledge and skills relating directly to the marketplace will be taught.  Critical areas will be neglected and genuine education will suffer.  Already, more and more students are abandoning the humanities.  They think it is easier to find a job, and one which pays well, with STEM subjects.  If this continues we may lose our humanity in the long run.  Students also need to be socialized properly.

Nowadays, universities are run like businesses.  They have to make large sums of money to cover their expenses.  Students must pay tuition fees or drop out.  Many students, especially in the USA, have large student loans which they take many years to repay after entering the workforce.  Many of them are forced to move back into their parents’ homes in order to save money.  Some of the ideals of education have been forgotten, such as the upliftment of the masses, and concern relative to social and ethical issues.

I will end by referring to Education for Action: a new network to resist the commodification of education (13 August 2013).  They inform us that ” An assemblage of critical researchers, community and trade union activists, has been emerging over the past year to question current government policies that privatize and raise the cost of post-compulsory education, which will effectively exclude working class students from further and higher education.”

Governments must find creative ways to protect equality of opportunity for all students in higher education.  This will render the debate on higher education: commodity or right, less relevant.

8 thoughts on “Higher Education: Commodity or Right?

    • Thanks for sending me the link to that interesting article. Like you, I think that those Senate Democratic proposals may create more problems than they will solve. If they are implemented, colleges will vet applicants more closely. They will refuse to accept low-income students in order to reduce their own financial risk. Some colleges will probably increase tuition fees to raise the funds to offset student loan defaults. That would also turn away low-income students. Some colleges that presently cater to low-income students may have to close down. The Historically Black Colleges, because of their exemptions, would be the only reliable avenue to higher education for low-income students.


  1. Education is now, job oriented. People are taught skills. We need to have a split now. Education that disseminates knowledge and education that teaches skills.

    There is no doubt that education is a commodity. Your article hits the nail on the head. My own experience is a lesson for me. Circumstances prevented me from continuing my education, although I wanted. to.

    The University of Mysore, India, came up with a n excellent plan to offer the so called MATURE ENTRY for candidates above the age of 25 to pursue a Masters without a basic qualification. Obviously, a difficult task.

    Many criticised the system but I found it fine. Why not learn, if one can. The willingness to work hard, acquire the knowledge and get qualified is a quality that many do not have. The course was not expensive but was reasonable, and I even passed the first of the two year course. Working an Instructor in the mornings and learning in the evening. It was not easy but was rewarding. Relocation and other problem prevented me from taking up the course again.

    The court has now ruled out such a plan. The same applies to those who wanted to or want to follow a bachelors. So, now that door is closed.

    Having had to work to survive, higher education remained an impossible dream. With an input of 14 to 15 hours of work per day, “evening” education was simply not possible.

    Now having been made redundant, I went in for a TEFL and passed. Tried to find a way to go for Bachelors! I realised then: higher education IS a commodity. An institution offered me a possibility to do a two year BA. Using my experience in management (8 years) and my two year professional qualification (Germany) as the base. NOT possible for me: the cost 75.000EUR for two years!!! Another university offered a course for about 21000EUR!!

    Education is, definitely, a commodity. Only one institution did I find which was not fully selling education viz. The University of People in the US. That is a promising case.

    Kind regards


    • Thanks very much for your powerful comments and your support. Higher education has become a commodity in today’s world and more and more people cannot afford it. The fact that you write from a personal perspective makes your contribution to this debate more telling. I agree with you that true education cannot be merely about job skills.


      • Pleasure.
        The higher the qualification the more expensive it becomes. Education is, in my humble opinion, the process by which a personality is nurtured, moulded and made to bloom. Such a personality is in a position to help other individuals to bloom forth.

        People blame the degree mills. Why? They are all escapists. We have created the problem ourselves. We are part and parcel of the problems. Commercial institutions are not abstract “entities”. They are peopled and organic “objects”. These commercial institutions that go by the name of universities have become so notorious in their greed for financial excellence, that counter institutions have come up to cater to the need of the society.

        It is my conviction that the elected governments should and must agree that, education in any form is the RIGHT of the electors and the DUTY of the elected.

        The time has come for a revolution in education and the time has come for a revolution in redefining social existence. If money is going to continue to rule supreme, we are definitely heading for a final showdown. Education has already become a farce.

        Liked by 1 person

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