The Sinister Sausage Machine

There’s a longstanding argument – currently very live in the UK – about whether higher education is or is not a market, or should or should not be.

If it is one at all, it’s not a straightforward market by a long chalk, no matter how hard you might try (if, for example, you are a Government trying to make it in to a market).

In a market, you have sellers, products, and buyers. But in HE these are all unclear.

In fact, I think, the confusion between all these, implicit in the market view of higher education, makes a university look like nothing less than a Sinister Sausage Machine.

Summer = Grill = Hotdogs!
photo (CC) Mike Johnson -

Take the sellers. This seems relatively simple: there are strict (Government) rules about who is and is not a university. But even there, further education colleges are increasingly providing higher education. There’s more and more potential for disaggregation – learning materials, tuition, assessment, peer group/network building, accreditation – all are at least in principle now separable. You could get your learning materials from one set of places, get tuition from several different sources, get assessed by another outfit, join a club for networking, and your qualification might be accredited by yet another entirely different body.

The products aren’t clear either. Tony Hirst recently asked just what it is that universities sell.

(As an aside, he says that when he joined the OU, he spent his ‘first 6 months or so asking everyone I met what it was the OU sold, only to be met with “go away, silly boy” sort of looks’. When I joined, only a few years later, I was struck by two things I hadn’t expected. First was that academics actually discussed their teaching – all of them. In my previous experience, outside of a few niche conferences, you would no more talk about what you did in the lecture theatre with your colleagues than you would talk about what you did in the toilet. (That’s now changed across the sector, thankfully.) Second surprise was that academics also freely discussed costs, marketing and selling of courses, explicitly in those terms. It was all a bit sotto voce elsewhere, with the occasional dark reference to student numbers if you were really up against it.)

Tony says he isn’t clear what it is the OU sells –

courses/modules? degrees/qualifications? CPD products? consultancy? research interests, or capacity (though not development or innovation;-)?!

This is an interesting question.

If we take just the courses/modules and degrees/qualifications bit, the OU is not selling them in the same way that Tesco sells potatoes and iPads, or even in the way that Sharron’s Nail Bar sells manicures. If I go to Tesco for spuds and shiny gadgets, there is no way I’m paying good money and then walking off without the goods. If Sharron decides my hands are not up to the high standards she requires before performing the manicure, I’m not going to pay her good money  for not giving me a manicure. But if I sign up for an OU module or qualification, I’ll still have to pay* even if the OU marks my work as ‘fail’ and I walk away with no degree.

In narrow terms, it’s obvious that if it’s a market at all, it’s a service as opposed to a tangible good. But the service is not providing a qualification: it’s something even less tangible than that.

One might even argue that students themselves are part of the supply chain of a degree: unless they participate effectively – and have the necessary underlying aptitude and skill – there will be no degree.

The contractual position between students and universities is an Interesting area of developing litigation at the moment. Accreditation and audit as a service is similarly problematic, and is subject to notable failures in the past.

So suppliers and products are murky. It gets even worse when we get on to who the customer is.

The first and easy answer is that it’s the student. Or perhaps their parents if they’re rich and prepared to shell out. Or maybe their employer or other sponsoring organisation if they’re shelling out.

Or – and here we start getting in to the scary bit – the customers are employers who ‘buy’ graduates. Except they pay the graduates, by way of inducements, not the universities (except very indirectly via general taxation, and possibly not at all if the Government achieves its long-term goals). There are many benefits of graduates to society more widely than graduate employers, so graduates are also a ‘product’ supplied as a public good.

We have here the vision for someone being a customer at one end of the process (a student) and becoming a product at the other (a graduate).

What other process is like this?

A Sinister Sausage Machine!

Sausage Making Machinery
NB So far as I am aware, this picture shows an entirely legitimate sausage-making machine and you must not infer that it has ever been used for more sinister purposes.

The punters roll up at one end, are churned up, and roll out the other end of the factory, neatly packaged up, ready for sale.

There’s an episode of Toytown, the 1970s kids’ TV show based on the 1930s radio show, where Larry The Lamb memorably bleats, “Oh Mr Mayor Sir, Dennis has fallen in the sausage machine!” – Dennis being a dachshund, or German sausage dog. I saw or heard this episode as an impressionable child and was horrified. I don’t think Dennis actually got turned in to sausages, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the plan that this sort of thing should happen, but it’s stuck in my mind ever since.

Similarly, there’s an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where Buffy is working at a burger bar. She discovers that there is a closely-guarded secret ingredient in the star product, the ‘Doublemeat Medley’, and also notices that employees keep disappearing. When she finds a severed finger in the meat grinder, she rushes out in to the restaurant and tells everyone to stop eating because the burgers are made of people. (They’re not, and she gets fired.)

And of course, while I’m on popular culture, there’s arguably the most famous spoiler of all time: Soylent Green is people!

That’s the sort of vision I have of the Sinister Sausage Machine, the implicit result of this market conception of higher education.

Rich Choice
Is that a human finger in the middle at the bottom? No, it is not.

But the Sinister Sausage Machine isn’t all bad!

Sausage-making is the art of producing homogeneity from heterogeneity of input. You get reliable quality from variable ingredients. As an educator, I’m very keen on the idea that the learners I help will come to a diverse set of places intellectually afterwards. Elite and Special Education all deeply understand this – Eton and the Darkton Sink Estate Pupil Referral Unit both. But if I’m going to give learners the same qualification, there has to be some degree (!) of commonality of outcome or my accreditation will be worthless.

Sausage-making takes unappealing inputs that would otherwise go to waste and turns them in to well-loved favourites. That’s not so bad, although I’d hesitate to be so rude about prospective students, and certainly not about the OU’s.

It is an industrialised process, to a large extent, but industrialisation is not (all) bad: mass production makes stuff available to those who couldn’t possibly afford or have access to an artisanal product. Which again is something I think can have great value to society, and is very much part of how the OU achieves its mission to be Open as to People.

Which brings me back to affordability and what the ‘market’ in higher education is, or should be. I think it’s like health care: socially and morally speaking, we really do not want to ration higher education by wealth. I’m delighted to see that David Willetts, the Minister for Universities, and David Cameron, the Prime Minister, have this week taken the opportunity to reassert most strongly the Government’s commitment to access to HE based on ‘ability to learn, not ability to pay’, even if I’m less delighted at the contrary prospect that was briefly raised. Given that commitment, any market in those areas must be very effectively regulated, and is likely to malfunction in socially-destructive ways.

Speaking of market malfunctions, all learning has a fundamental propensity to information asymmetry. Someone wanting to learn something from someone else ipso facto knows less about it than they do. If you create a market at all, you risk creating a market for lemons, with consequent collapse. Which is why HE is so heavily regulated, and why there are serious risks in introducing a lightly-regulated private HE sector to the UK system.**

My take home message?

Every time someone talks about market reforms to higher education, think of the Sinister Sausage Machine. It’s not at all straightforward what’s going in, what’s coming out, and who’s paying for what – and still less who’s benefitting from what. It’s never going to be a simple, clear market, and trying to make it one is likely to have Scary Consequences.

* Assuming I have to pay at all – about a quarter of our students get financial assistance from us. And an even larger proportion use our budgeting/instalment payment facility, OUSBA, which charges well below market rates for credit. (Currently 5.1% APR, a bargain.)

** I do see an important distinction in principle between heavy/light regulation, and effective/ineffective regulation. Heavy is not necessarily effective, and light is not necessarily ineffective. But the situation here is very complex, and it’s very hard to make light regulation do complex work. The details matter.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

6 thoughts on “The Sinister Sausage Machine”

  1. To clarify: when I was asking folk what the OU sold, it was in part because there were ongoing conversations at the time about whether the OU should be offering named qualifications or courses/modules.

    Academics were generally involved with courses and had an interest in the amount they were being sold for because that would affect both the degree of access and the likely student numbers. It was also easier to get a hold on whether costs associated with eg the presentation of the course (residential school, home experiment kits, quality of binding/2 or 3 colour cover on print units, cost of supplied books cf. self-purchase etc.) were running away when it was factored back down to course sale price.

    There were also discussion ongoing at the time, in a BBC/OU context particularly, about the notion of “learning journeys” and whether we could be making smaller standalone courses that could be offered to support popular/primetime programming (rather than the original model of having programming that supported courses directly) and maybe bundled up into credit bearing courses at more coarsely grained points values. It strikes me now that more might have been made of the idea of standalone units tied to programmes, that could be sold as standalone items by OUW.

    (On the “what does the OU sell” front as well was the recognition that OUW sold OU course resources without assessment, although I suspect not in the volumes that courses were taken up.)

    I suspect the empty looks I got back were because most people were focussed on the course/module, with a recognition that the degree qualification was also a motivating factor for taking courses for many students. But I have the vague memory that what came out of the discussions around “micro-courses” was that there was no mechanism for bundling courses, or offering discount rates for students who absolutely knew they wanted to take courses X, Y and Z.

    I’m not sure if it’s the case that courses get costed internally for a student registration fee whether or not the student is new to the university, has been registered for years, or is part-way through a degree programme they have stated they are following with several compulsory courses? Is it the case that if I know I’m going to take course X this year, Y next and Z the year after, I can lock the fee in place now? Or might I find when I come to take course Z in a couple of years its price has gone up? Can I get a fixed price on my 3 course bundle, payable over the next three years?

    1. So far as I know – and I’m not an authoritative source here – the internal costing model takes in separate estimates for new and continuing students, because the costs are different. But I’m fairly sure there’s only one price for a module presentation, for all students. You can only register for courses once they’re opened for registration, at which point the price is fixed and doesn’t change. If you know you want to do course Z in three years’ time, you (probably) can’t register for it yet.

      I strongly suspect this is under active review at the moment, though.

  2. When I worked in Examinations & Assessment over 10 years ago I took a call from an angry student who had failed his course (he was an OUBS student). He was angry about various details including the fact that his was a bare fail which is always galling, but one of the things he said in the heat of the moment was that he had paid good money for the course so why didn’t he get a pass! I did not say that a pass is not an automatic right just because you pay your fees but advised him to query his result in writing. This was in the days before E&A was able to offer feedback on examination performance.

    1. Impressed at your professional response!

      It is tough, though, and it’s going to get tougher, I think, as the price goes up.

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