Push for factory-universities

Submitted by martin on 20 July, 2020 - 9:01 Author: Cath Fletcher

The Government has published a "Restructuring Regime" for universities that need emergency funds in the wake of Covid-19. It's clear the Tories want to use the virus as an excuse to force through major cuts and reorganisation in the sector.

Any university in need of a bail-out will be required to show that it has "strong graduate employment outcomes in areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM, nursing and teaching". This effectively treats universities as factories pumping out graduates suited for capitalist bosses, rather than as critical individuals able to think for themselves. Reports suggest the Government is also considering copying Australia's lead and raising tuition fees for arts while cutting them for science subjects.

Universities are told under the new regime they must "demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy". While this seems an innocuous statement, there's a risk it will be interpreted by gung-ho managers as an excuse to restrict legitimate protest against objectionable speakers on campus (mostly protest which seeks to make criticism audible, rather than stop the speakers speaking at all).

There's more evidence for that in a further clause that says: "The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns". This will surely be used to target campaigns over trans rights and Black Lives Matter.

The Government's encouraging all universities - whether or not they need a bail-out - to engage with its agenda of more job-focused apprenticeships and its attack on "low-quality courses". By that it means courses where graduates don't (or don't quickly) earn high wages. This targets subjects like creative arts, which can be enormously rewarding for students but where employment is often uncertain.

Of course, there'll still be opportunities for an elite of students to study such subjects, but already we're seeing the impact of this policy on opportunities for working-class students at lower entry tariff universities. Major course cuts in arts and humanities at Sunderland predated the pandemic, while Portsmouth is now planning to close its English Literature department and at Gloucester all the humanities are under threat.

Campus trade unions and student unions need to fight each of these cuts and protect the right to a critical independent education, without government restrictions on what individuals can study.

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