As students and university staff, we must recognise and denounce the Conservative government’s transparent attempts to marketise education outlined in the green paper and policy. We must resist this process, ensure it is not seen as an inevitability, and remain vigilant and critical of future plans to jeopardise education, the public university and education as a right as opposed to a privilege. The Tories want education to serve employers and big business – this is no secret. The introduction of fees was the first step towards the full marketisation of the sector, and we can understand the green paper and its latest set of announcements and potential policy as the next move, and an equally violent attack on education. If this consultation reaches legislation unchanged it will be nothing less than the end of public education.
Among the alarming policies, are the following plans:
- Future tuition fee rises could be imposed by ministers without a vote in Parliament, opening the door to unlimited, unaccountable fee rises.
- Fees to rise at least with inflation from 2017, for institutions that tick the boxes of the market-oriented Teaching Excellence Framework.
- The Research Excellence Framework could become even more narrow and metric-focussed – further restricting academic freedom.
- New private providers will be given help in the market to cut into existing public universities.
- At the same time, the government is developing the management of “exit” of institutions from the market – reaffirming that the Tories are planning for public universities to collapse under their attacks.
- There is also a vague threat of increased government control of student unions, linked to the undemocratic anti-trade union bill currently being put through Parliament – our right to defend ourselves collectively through our unions is likely under threat.
- The Teaching Excellence Framework (or TEF) will measure universities’ performance on market-oriented metrics, including graduate employment. This will define “good teaching” as little more than increasing the value of our work to employers and big business. Teaching will no longer be about serving students, it will be about serving our future employers.
Implicit in the promise of funding and rewards for high performing courses and departments, is also the inevitability of further future redundancies and more low-paid precarious contracts. Already overburdened hourly paid academics will be tasked with providing more “high quality” teaching, leaving them less time to pursue their own research and punishing staff who do not or cannot fulfil the rigid criteria and expectations of the TEF. Moreover, the Trade Union bill vastly limits the capacity for workers to resist such changes through industrial action.
Another worrying feature of the government’s Green Paper on higher education is that it proposes removing universities from the Freedom of Information law.
At Warwick, societies and student journalists have long sought to utilise the Act in order to access information from our somewhat opaque management structure; universities are notoriously shady when it comes to freedom of information, and Warwick is no exception. Given its severe limitations, it is beneficial to students and workers at universities for the act to be strengthened. The Paper doesn’t attempt to argue that the move is in the general interests of students; rather, it argues that current FOI laws put universities at a disadvantage relative to private providers.
If any more evidence was needed that this government plans to fully subordinate higher education, in form and function, under the rubric of the neo-liberal market, this is it.
One of the most alarming and blatantly unjust pieces of policy we’re probably all aware of is the axing of maintenance grants for the poorest students. “From the 2016‐17 academic year, maintenance grants will be replaced with maintenance loans for new students from England” This is a direct attack on the poorest students in education, and makes a mockery of Tories’ talk about ‘access’ and increasing the number of working-class students in education by 2020.
With tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt looming over students, the higher education system evokes a constraining sense of fear and narrow cautiousness regarding our actions at University. We are told that we are here to get a degree, which is sold to us as a necessity in order to secure a happy and successful life – clearly wrong on both counts. Graduate unemployment is at an all-time high, and rates of mental health problems amongst students and graduates continue to soar. In order to make sure each leaves university with a degree, we are taught we must prioritise grades above all else and give ourselves an easy life by following the University mantras. This philosophy of marketization is having a hugely damaging effect on student life, as we are pressured into severely restricting our activities to comply with the neoliberal agenda, leaving little room for exploration, expression and creativity within academia as well as outside of it.
Rather than choosing our degree subjects through a genuine desire to learn and freely explore academia, it is now becoming more frequent for these incredibly important decisions to be primarily based on a prescribed system of risk-assessment and self-management which values academic attainment and employability above all else. Students are finding themselves in this situation upon realising that the burden of student debt will require them to get as high a paying job as possible after graduation. This manipulation of students leaves many feeling alienated and overwhelmed, stuck with a degree which they do not enjoy, which does not inspire them. It’s clear that the priorities the Conservative government have with regards to education do not lie in the hands of students.
The economic debt the majority of graduates become trapped with lends itself to a sense of moral debt experienced by many students in relation to their universities – the neoliberalisation of education positions universities as service providers in an educational market, and our side of the contract necessitates that we consume, but don’t complain or speak out. A trend seems to be appearing in which students are being ground down to passivity and compliance by their indebtedness to their higher education institutions, feeling as if they cannot, or have no right to, resist or challenge the system so long as they “get what they are paying for”. We simultaneously imagine ourselves as owing to the Government, that we have been awarded a luxury whose cost we must resolve to repay, and as customers entitled to a particular excellency of service because of the money we have paid to our University, placing further pressures on strained staff and re-situating dissent from the streets to feedback forms. Both mentalities distort the true meaning and unquantifiable worth of education.
Another threat that the Tories have recently posed to education is enforcing the English Baccalaureate if re-elected, meaning that students will have very limited options of subject choices at GCSE level, once again narrowing the boundaries of education and serving the interests of only a very select few students who happen to perform most strongly in traditionally “academic” subjects. Although this does not directly effect universities per se, it could vastly alter the accessibility of higher education to a very large proportion of students, and furthers the concept that, rather than serving the interests of those wishing to learn, the primary purpose of education is to produce an academic elite, a very conservative envisioning of one at that, and to make graduates into easily comparable commodities and “good” employees. For all the Tories’ statements of poorer students not being deterred from attending University by 9K fees, the problem courses much deeper: the inaccessibility of our education system at all its levels entails that the most disadvantaged students will routinely not achieve as highly their more privileged peers. When a degree is sold to us as a pre-requisite to gaining a foothold in a ruthless job market and to securing a prosperous life, the increasingly competitive entry requirements of universities leave many feeling as they have no options and no future.
It’s clear that the future of education truly is at stake here, unless we envisage the perfect education system as one that works to serve the needs of the 1% and large corporations, and is seen as nothing more than a tactic for accumulating capital, at the expense of the time, money and futures of students and staff alike. It is a matter of absolute urgency that we must stand against these ideological attacks on higher education, as students and staff, and continue to support the struggle towards a free, democratic and accessible education for all.