Across the country, university bosses are announcing cuts to jobs, courses and departments.
Teesside has forced all of its professors to reapply for their own jobs and banned their trade union from a meeting to discuss it. Durham wants to recruit 4000 more students while cutting staff. The Open University plans to slash a quarter of its budget, meaning swathes of jobs, to pay for a “digital transformation” plan.
Many of these universities are in good financial shape, and the government has not recently cut overall funding. So why are the cuts happening?
First, gaming the new Teaching Excellence Framework, and its research counterpart: government-imposed hoop-jumping exercises, supposedly assessing “quality” in universities. Manchester’s bosses reckon they can raise their scores, and so their fees, by becoming a smaller but more “elite” university — by slashing workers’ livelihoods and students’ opportunities.
Second, 2011’s introduction of a deregulated student numbers market. Previously, universities had quotas of students they could take, creating stability. Now the drive to marketise education has meant student numbers fluctuate, and with them, income. Universities are scrambling for savings because recruitment has dropped, or cutting socially valuable courses that are less profitable, or cramming in students for our fees without properly funding staff to support us.
Third, universities are facing financial instability as their investments, costs and so on are hit by wider economic turmoil.
We can fight these cuts locally. We can demand that universities prioritise students and staff, education and research, over managers’ six-figure salaries and marketing gimmicks. Already, University of the Arts London bosses were forced to back off job cuts by a campaign including a student occupation.
But we also need to join up for a national fight against the marketised system driving the cuts. Yes, we need to reverse the reforms that introduced the TEF and the student numbers market, and scrap fees. But we must go further. Education can never fulfil the needs of the many as long as it is provided through a patchwork of atomised selective institutions, each straining to stay afloat amid the buffeting forces of the market, many sharing the same turf, and all competing for students, funding, and scores in government assessments.
Market chaos breeds inequality, restricts intellectual breadth, and is a fundamentally irrational way to organise education. We need a coherently joined-up, comprehensive, public education system, based on cooperation not competition. Provision should be planned democratically by students, staff and communities to fulfil social need, not determined by big business interests and market forces.
Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal of a National Education Service offers a space to articulate and win that vision, but it’s up to us to flesh out the idea and fight for it.