The big business of higher education

Higher education in Britain is increasingly run as a business, with those who cannot afford to pay losing out most. University College London was recently estimated to have spent £600,000 on a campaign to build its ‘brand’, at the same time it is cutting back on staff and resources. Access to university-level education remains severely restricted. This year 106,000 applicants were refused places at university, that is one in five. Provisional figures suggest that there will be fewer applicants to universities next year, the first year of top-up fees.

Despite Labour’s claims of widening access, a smaller percentage of university entrants in 2005 were from state schools than in 2004. For elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, the proportion was under 60%. Looking at students’ backgrounds in more detail the divide is even more stark. Figures compiled by the NUS for 2003 showed that only 17% of students were from working class backgrounds, 3% lower than two years previously.

This should come as no surprise when the total cost of doing a degree averages around £20,000, even without top-up fees. For certain courses, such as medicine, the fees alone come to £12,000 over four years, meaning that in most cases only the very rich can apply. Over 90% of students are now in debt to the government-owned Student Loans Company, owing a total of over £5 billion. After such huge investment, students might expect to have a higher chance of employment after graduation, but official figures show unemployment amongst graduates is currently 5.9% compared to 4.75% in the general population.

Over 40% of students are forced to work at the same time as studying full-time just to stay alive, working an average of 13 hours a week, often for very little pay and with few basic rights. The more students work part-time, the lower their exam grades and final degree results. Many students have to live in cramped and poorly-maintained housing.

All of this puts students under pressure, leading to illness and stress. Of those who began university in 2002, 18,565 young students and over 1,000 mature students dropped out before completing their studies, a significantly higher proportion than for 2001. Many cited financial pressures as the major reason.

All of this seems set to worsen as students in higher education are squeezed tighter in the search for new profits. Universities are under pressure to close small departments and focus on specific subjects in order to increase ‘efficiency’. Teaching staff who have more concern for students’ education are being squeezed out of decision-making processes under the guise of ‘academic restructuring’, to be replaced by administrators aiming to deliver the skilled workers needed by the economy in the cheapest way – in short, running universities as ‘profitable’ enterprises in the service of capital.

Tom Vickers

FRFI 188 December 2005 / January 2006


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