Fight the HE Bill!

Submitted by Matthew on 10 November, 2016 - 2:32 Author: Ruairidh Anderson

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a free education activist network, writes that the HE reforms “are forcing marketisation on the university sector”, which will lead to universities “raising tuition fees, and allowing private providers further access to education provision.”

In brief “(the reforms) constitute a wide-ranging assault on the principles of free, liberated, critical education.” The main mechanism through which this will be achieved is through a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

This will be similar to the Research Excellence Framework, a way of ranking universities based on certain criteria or — to use the jargon — “metrics”. In this case, the criteria are not based on research output but on a new list which will enhance the role business and the market have in higher education. The arrangement of the TEF means that private providers and business will gain an increased role in education regardless of how universities rank.

Universities that rank highly in the TEF will be allowed to raise fees, while those who rank poorly will not, and this has many far-reaching implications for the sector. One of the confirmed TEF criteria is “average graduate salary after six months”: the higher the better. Universities, looking to increase their TEF score and get more funding through increased fees, will develop their existing business relationships so that graduates in specific courses are being taught the skills that businesses want, making it more likely, so it is said, that those businesses will directly employ a university’s existing students after graduation.

Control over content by businesses and university vice-chancellors will increase and potentially, so too will restrictions on academic and teaching freedom, if what is being taught is undermining, rather than helping foster these business relations. At the very least freedom in academic research would not be helpful for a university’s TEF ranking and so is at major risk of being deemed unnecessary by many vice-chancellors, whose main aims are often the expansion of a university’s surplus wealth over other aspects of the institution.

Meanwhile, universities that do not reach “teaching excellence” in the initial assessment may find themselves consistently ranking poorly in the TEF because they will never be able to unlock the extra funding that “leading” universities will gain in increased fees. With less, increasingly inadequate funding, they will find it very difficult to correct many of the funding problems that put them in that position in the first place. These institutions will lay off or underpay staff to cut costs, increase rent in halls, and outsource courses to private companies which would naturally orientate the courses away from the needs and interests of students.

Many private providers including Google and Pearson already run education courses. Over years, a stratification of higher education institutions could occur. Imagine a situation in which Oxbridge charge £50,000 per year, while others are still charging £9,000 a year but with even more extortionate rents, underfunded health care services and poorly paid staff. It could happen. (Harvard’s fees are $63,025 per year).

These reforms need to be opposed as a whole — their overall impact, not just the raising of fees, is the problem! The National Union of Students voted to oppose these reforms and at its 2016 national conference agreed two key actions, both backed by UCU, the largest union for university academic staff.

One of the ranking criteria for TEF will be a universities score in the National Student Survey (NSS) and NUS agreed to organise a mass boycott of this survey, to make it unusable in the TEF and so giving us leverage of the government. Another major tactic is a demonstration under the banner “United for Education: no fees, no cuts, no debt” on Saturday, 19 November.

This slogan is politically good in an abstract sense, but does not make it clear that this demo is a protest against the specific HE reforms of this government. It is important that we all build this demonstration and opposition to the reforms, and raise focussed and radical slogans about combatting the reforms and transforming our education system into one that is free, liberated and accessible to all.

What that transformation might look like is a hugely important topic for the left to discuss. Under Corbyn, Labour has announced the policy of a National Education Service (NES), which means something like education “from the cradle to the grave”.

But Labour is yet to fully develop the policy. We urgently need to do that. Groups like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have created a space for these crucial discussions. Over many years, NCAFC has popularised the idea of free education in the National Union of Students. It is also important that we take this discussion into the Labour Party and Momentum.