On 22 December, Peter Mandelson wrote to the Higher Education funding body outlining nearly £400 million in cuts in higher education for 2010-11. The figure exceeds by £135 million the £180 million cuts and £83 million in “efficiency savings” announced in the 2009 budget.
And in last month’s pre-budget report the government announced a total of £600 million in cuts by 2013. On 12 January the Russell Group, the UK’s 20 “leading” universities accused the government of bringing higher education “to its knees”.
In his letter Mandelson said he wanted to see more business control over education, “fast track” stripped-down degrees, and intensified competition for funding between universities. These structural changes go hand-in-hand with a jobs massacre in the sector. Before Mandelson’s latest announcement, the University and College Union calculated that over 6,000 jobs were at risk in Higher and Further Education across the UK. That figure is certain to grow.
Lord Mandelson says he wants to see the creation of two-year degrees. He calls this “diverse provision”. In reality it is a way of maintaining a business-friendly skills base in society, on the cheap. It will be paid for in higher class sizes, greater workloads, and a dumbed-down, exam-driven syllabus.
In his letter Mandelson calls for clearer signals from business on what skills employers want in their workers, and for “a mechanism to redeploy funds, on a competitive basis, to those institutions that are able and willing to develop... provision in these key areas”. In other words, the government wants to force education institutions to provide only the courses that businesses want to see, or to have funds withdrawn.
The government has long been building a business-oriented education sector. Last year Education Not for Sale activists disrupted the latest in a series of conferences bringing together business leaders and university bosses, aimed at expanding the influence of business in higher education.
Under the conditions of economic crisis, the government and the capitalist class has become more determined to “reform” education, to strip away everything that isn’t essential to business interests and reduce education into a pared-down profit-making implement. The cuts that we are seeing now, and the restructuring that has been taking place since the introduction of fees, are now set to speed up and get more intense and thoroughgoing.
The student movement and the unions that organise education workers have to get themselves in shape — and fast — to resist these attacks. We need unity between staff and students, a realistic programme of industrial and political struggle in the immediate term, and a willingness to take radical direct action. Occupations, unofficial action and secondary action all need to see a comeback in the education sector.
Student fees set to rise
The flip side of the government plan to make cuts and further marketise education is a drive to raise more money through tuition fees and student debt — rather than through progressive taxation.
Since they were introduced in 1997 student fees have been progressively increased and university bosses have been given more choice of what level of fees to charge. Unless stopped, the logical conclusion of this process is a fully variable market system, with cut-price colleges at one end and costly “full-service” universities at the other.
A government review into fees — chaired by Lord Browne, a former Chief Executive of BP and made up of education-sector management consultants, quango chiefs, and a former Rolls Royce boss — is set to conclude that higher education needs higher fees. The Nation Union of Students, under the leadership of the Labour Students careerist clique, having failed to get “student representation” are now at a loss about what to do about this attack on students.
That is why we need an independent rank-and-file movement of student campaigns and fighting student unions that links up with staff unions and creates a national, political voice for free education and against cuts.