Eyebrows were raised when, following the violent student protests on 10th November, lecturers at Goldsmiths, University of London, praised the "magnificent" rioters. 10 Downing Street condemned the lecturers' "irresponsible" comments.
This was, after all, the occasion of injured police officers and more than sixty arrests of protesters. The occasion that the inner lobby of 30 Millbank was gutted, dismembered and defaced. The occasion of a jejune lust for wreckage; masquerading as a peaceful, bona fide demonstration.
Yet these coarse academics felt obliged to praise the unlawful mayhem. And, it occurred to me, why not? When you begin to appreciate their actual motive, it makes perfect marketing sense.
Some brief background, if I may. Universities in this country, up until now, have existed behind a cosy, protective, state-sponsored screen of unaccountable torpescence. We have maintained this farce that each and every degree classification is accurate and equal. A 2:1 from Durham University is tantamount to a 2:1 from the University of Bedfordshire, for instance. Of course, we all know this to be bogus, but universities can still hide the mediocrity of their actual performance and standing behind the veil of uniformity that shields the sector. For the ideologically imposed reasons of 'equality', one eminently more valuable degree course is not permitted to signal its higher worth in the marketplace through the price mechanism.
Until now. The Government have not accepted Lord Browne's headline proposal to remove the undergraduate tuition fees cap; however, the revised policy of a lower cap of £6,000 and a higher cap of £9,000 leaves institutions plenty of room for manoeuvre, as robust pricing research has shown.
When former colleagues and I questioned leading university executives prior to the general election, the majority (70%) expected fees to be capped at a level above £6,000, with £7,000 being the most commonly selected. For an open market to emerge, the highest proportion of respondents suggested the £7,000-£8,000 range. When asked about optimal levels for their own institutions, there was a clear preference for fees below £7,000. Pre-1992 universities were most comfortable with higher fees but by contrast, all but one of the post-1992 respondents considered a level up to £5,000 or £6,000 as optimal. They know their market, and they know it won't bear fees of £9,000.
So what is my point? Goldsmiths are worried about the new undergraduate fees scenario. No, they are not a former poly, or post-1992 institution. Goldsmiths College was founded at the end of the 19th century. It has heritage and pedigree. It is a member of the 1994 Group, the coalition of top smaller research-intensive universities. Nonetheless, its actual performance puts it in a middling position. The Guardian's 2011 university guide ranks Goldsmiths at 58th (down from 39th in 2010), below the likes of Huddersfield, Nottingham Trent and Chichester. Some of its research and core capabilities in the arts are ranked very highly.
Goldsmiths represents, in the higher education sector, the "squeezed middle". The difficulty faced by the likes of Goldsmiths is twofold: (i) It is plainly not good enough to charge as much as the country's best universities; but (ii) it is plainly not bad enough so have a budget price tag and get by on volume.
A high price tag transmits a signal of quality. A low one, the opposite. Goldsmiths aspires to greatness, and in some areas it could achieve it, but at the moment, its reputation and, to be frank, performance, does not justify the price tags of greatness.
An open market in tuition fees threatens to expose inadequacies in our higher education sector. It is the middling universities, neither rubbish nor brilliant, who have the most difficult task in differentiating themselves from the competition. They will have to think of smart, innovate marketing strategies to win students in this harsh new world. They can do this in several ways and, from my experience working in the sector, I know that several university marketing departments are coming round to thinking in this way, some brilliantly so.
The fascinating and vital trait that keeps being born out in studies of this sector (as most others, of course) is brand recognition. That intangible, ethereal, frustratingly qualitative quantity: brand. Get your name out there, and get it known. For something, anything, but make it distinctive.
The reaction of some firebrand Goldsmiths lecturers after the 10th November student riots was irresponsible and rightly condemned by the Government and university authorities. But it has made you talk about Goldsmiths.
*As my long-standing readership will know, I am not an uncritical observer of market forces in higher education. My viewpoint here is to provide a rationale for the irrational stance of certain Goldsmiths lecturers, not to say that marketisation of higher education is a good thing. It isn't totally. But it is here to stay, and universities will have to adapt to that.