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.