Higher education under threat

Chancellor Osborne’s October Comprehensive Spending Review left no stone unturned – across the board, public spending is being slashed. For the Chancellor, higher education was to be no exception.

The announcements were as swift as they were brutal. Higher education teaching budgets are to be cut by 80%. To make up for the gaping hole in education funding, the publication on 12 October of Lord Browne’s report, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in the UK, advocates lifting the cap on tuition fees to at least £7,000. Universities minister David Willetts expressed his support for the general sweep of the report and on 3 November he announced plans to increase tuition fees to as much as £9,000 a year – almost triple current levels – with a ‘basic threshold’ of £6,000. The fees will be the highest for any publicly funded university in any developed country.

Willetts said that the rise in tuition fees would not be implemented overnight; a written statement to MPs confirmed that the cap on tuition fees would initially rise in line with inflation for students starting in September 2011 to £3,375, up £85 on this year. By doing this, the fee rise is unlikely to affect many students currently in or having just entered university – the intention is to limit the resistance that students will mount. Although the strategy worked when the Labour government first introduced fees in 1999, it failed this time when student demonstrators occupied the Tory headquarters on 10 November, in direct action against these attacks. Undoubtedly, more will come as the attacks on education make their presence truly felt.

Together with the severe cuts in higher education funding, the ConDems plan to encourage the privatisation of university education. Within universities, private companies have been vying for new opportunities to profit from running courses. In mid-October, the University of Nottingham launched a new module jointly designed by their chemistry department and GlaxoSmithKline. Meanwhile, Morrisons supermarket announced on 20 October that it would fund 20 undergraduates each year starting in January 2011 as part of its three year BSc in business and management at Bradford University. Company management training programmes are being awarded degree status. Such a strategy differs little from that of the previous Labour government, which instituted tuition fees and aggressively encouraged the involvement of private investors in universities – and originally commissioned Lord Browne’s report.

Research was one area that did not have its funding directly cut. In real terms it is to be maintained at £4.6 billion, of which 25% is for military purposes. The government has its priorities set. No direct cut to its funding, however, is not to say that it is safe. In September 2009, under the Labour government, the Higher Education Funding Council for England issued the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This plan established three criteria for research to attain funding: output, impact and environment. Impact was specifically set out in terms of economic impact; to get funding, researchers have to find a user and demonstrate that their research is in their economic interest. The aim is to provide ‘research mobility’ between universities and private firms. The very notion of research is undermined – research is now made to line the pockets of private companies, not to improve human knowledge. Willetts said that the government will delay a decision on REF, ‘to establish whether a sound and widely accepted measure of impact exists’.

Under the new funding regime, universities will be allowed to fail if they cannot get sufficient funding from fees and research incomes to cover their costs. Universities will be forced to compete against each other in the marketplace, and will seek economies of scale, reducing unit costs by increasing student numbers per lecturer and reducing expenditure on equipment. Universities will push for shorter and more online courses, increasing turnover and income at the expense of educational content. Mergers and takeovers will begin as universities start to fail. Like vultures, Russell Group universities and private companies such as Kaplan, BPP and Pearson will circle over failing institutions, eager to get their foot in the burgeoning market and make profits. Higher education is seen only in terms of its benefit for capitalism and selfish aspirations of the individual; it is being turned into a commodity.

Statistics released by UCAS show that roughly 209,000 people failed to get to university in autumn 2010 as a result of the freeze in university places announced by the previous Labour government. Access will further diminish as universities begin to fail in the marketplace – universities like London Metropolitan, which has as many Afro-Caribbean students as the 20 elite Russell Group universities combined, will begin to close their doors, increasing the already unequal state of higher education in Britain. Further education colleges, which are also on the receiving end of a 25% budget cut by 2014-15, will be permitted to run degree programmes. Colleges could deliver degrees at cut rates and inferior quality – second and third class education for the working class.

Tuition fees are already unaffordable for many, with more than two thirds of the students who have started university this term expecting to fund their education through part time work. The fee rise to £9,000 will amplify this, and make the already elitist British education system even more inaccessible to working class youth. Meanwhile, those who do manage to graduate face uncertain futures – graduate unemployment is now at its highest in 17 years, with nearly one in 11 graduates unemployed six months after leaving university. The choice for young working class people is clear – wave goodbye to any hope of a university education or fightback. Events of 10 November set an inspiring precedent for just this.

Murray Andrews

FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011


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