Higher university fees and private providers

Submitted by Matthew on 18 May, 2016 - 10:33

The government’s Higher Education White Paper, released on Monday 16 May, is a clear ideological attack on students, workers, and universities as public institutions. Here are our initial responses.

Free Education is “value for money”

One of things we keep hearing about from the government is that universities need to be “value for money”. This value will come from bringing in more “choice” for students in where and what they study.

This is very much an illusion and we should treat it as such. When you have to pay at least £9,000 a year upfront, you don’t have a proper choice. Students are valued only as consumers. The only choice they are offered is where to spend their money. The proposals are vague on Student Unions, mentioning more government oversight and scrutiny into how their funding is used. Really the only true value for money option is free education.

The privatisation of the UK’s higher education system

We’re seeing a gradual end to public higher education in this country. Under the proposals, we will see private providers, including the likes of Google and Facebook, able to open their own universities if they wish. It will also create the possibility of institutions failing and leaving the market.

This is most likely to affect universities which are traditionally known for widening participation such as London Met. The institutions most at risk have more working class and BME students than their Russell Group counterparts. These reforms won’t necessarily create the possibility of institutions failing but what they do mean, explicitly, is that the government won’t help them if they do. The government also claim that the market will squeeze out certain degrees. A lot is said about “mickey mouse degrees,” deemed useless as they don’t produce the most employable graduates. In reality, this will hit the arts and humanities.

Society needs both artists and biochemists, but the goal of the government is to see university become a pipeline for employers. This will at the very least mean funding cuts for lots of less profitable degrees and even the closing of some departments. We’ve already seen this happening with the increasing marketisation of education — Queen’s University Belfast completely cutting sociology is just one example. The White Paper will make this more common.

There are a couple of silver linings. We’ve seen the government drop the idea to exempt universities from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and that the process for lifting the fee cap won’t change — it will still require a vote in Parliament. The plans to introduce variable fees have also been delayed, although not abandoned. This buys us more time to fight them.

What does “Teaching Quality” mean for workers? The flagship proposal in the HE White Paper is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Proposed to mirror the much detested Research Excellence Framework (REF), the TEF measures neither “teaching” nor “excellence” in any sense that you would imagine. but looks at things such as graduate employment to see if teaching is “excellent”.

This will undoubtedly lead to metric-driven teaching and increased pressure on staff to meet pointless targets rather than a focus on teaching. It will also justify universities continuing to casualise teaching staff. Casualised teachers cannot teach as well as teachers on fixed contracts due to stress, financial pressures, and having to find employment in summer months. Moreover lecturers’ pay has fallen by 14.5% in real terms since 2009 and UCU members (the academics’ trade union) will be going on strike on 25-26 May 2016 over pay including the ever persistent gender pay gap.

Does the White Paper “put students at its heart”?

If by students you mean a pliant future workforce, then yes. It is quite clear to all that the government calling the White Paper “student centric” is a highly cynical move. It’s about getting private providers in Higher Education and dressing it up as “choice”. It’s also about pleasing big business — employers will be represented on TEF review panels, which means that Apple and BP could influence the curriculum.

When the government talk about “student choice,” they mean making the “right kind of choice” — to get a job. But might be a good time to mention that graduate employment is far more linked to what your parents do than what you study, and students from liberation groups are more likely to struggle on the job market regardless of their degree. Under these measures, university education would mean nothing but expensive training for the job you won’t get.

You cannot have a truly transformative, liberating education when the trade-off is a lifetime of debt. Competition under the guise of choice will not give us the education we want and need. Only robust public funding, more democracy and collaboration between staff and students can do that.

Why we need to fight the NSS and DLHE

The government has proposed an increase in fees linked to TEF, in large part using scores from the National Student Survey and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (the survey taken six months after graduation looking at employment). This measure has been delayed until TEF Year 2, which is academic year 2017/18. Then, institutions that score highly will be able increase fees in line with inflation, and by the 2018/19 the government would introduce varied levels of fee caps. The NSS and DLHE are key parts of the TEF, the central pillar of the government’s proposals. We have proposed to wreck them with the policy passed at NUS, calling for a boycott or a sabotage of the surveys. A successful boycott or sabotage will render these surveys useless, thus destroying the credibility of TEF. We now need to pass motions supporting the boycott/sabotage at as many student unions as possible. From the start of the new term NCAFC will be running campaigns up and down the country to collect pledges from finalists agreeing to boycott or sabotage the 2017 NSS and 2018 DLHE.

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