Britain: Paying a higher price for higher education

MASSIVE ATTACKS on working people, students, young people and the unemployed are currently being made by the government, in an attempt to put the bill for the economic crisis squarely at the feet of the working class. Higher education (HE) is in the frontline.

Huge funding cuts started under New Labour – £2.5 billion from the HE budget – and are accelerating under the coalition government. Invariably, it will be working-class students who are hit the hardest.

The UCU, the union representing academic staff, estimated that around 14,000 jobs were in danger under New Labour, with even more likely to go if the Con-Dem butchers get their way. In addition, Lord Browne’s HE funding review is due to report this October and will recommend that individual students pay far more towards their education than they have to currently.

The last period of economic growth was marked with a huge expansion in the availability of university places for young people. New Labour set a goal of 50% of school leavers going into HE. This expansion was positive for the capitalist class, which requires a large base of skilled workers to help it make profits, and good for the government, which was able to use this to keep down youth unemployment figures. However, rather than the state investing in high quality, fully funded university places and courses, an attempt was made to provide education on the cheap. Individuals had to shell out much of the cost of being educated from their own pockets, with tuition fees being introduced, followed by top-up fees. An undergraduate qualification in England now costs a student £3,145 for every year of study.

Another feature has been the marketisation of HE, with universities increasingly encouraged to behave like private enterprises, competing with one another for students, funding and research grants. Students, we are told, should be treated as ‘customers’ and education a ‘product’. Limited government money (£7.356bn in 2010-11), allocated through the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE), has meant that universities are forced to use other methods, such as recruiting international students who pay much higher fees, to raise money. Yet a study based on figures from 2007-08 found that universities generated then around £59 billion in revenue and were responsible for creating, directly or indirectly, around 2.6% of Britain’s jobs.

An elite group of research intensive universities are able to massively supplement the funding they receive from government and tuition fees with the income they generate from their research. This increases what they are able to provide and is leaving many of the newer universities unable to compete. Many of these top institutions are very difficult for working-class pupils to enter. Oxford and Cambridge, for example, still recruit around 50% of their students from public schools, with many of the elite Russell Group of universities not far behind – yet 7% of the population are privately educated. By contrast, many of the post-1992 universities take the vast majority of their students from state schools. In 2008, London Metropolitan University was attended by more African-Caribbean students than all of the 20 Russell Group universities put together.

Fundamentally, the new government does not have a particularly different HE ‘vision’ than New Labour. However, the changed economic situation means that big shifts in HE provision are on the way. The new Con-Dem coalition is keen to move even further towards a market-style system, with as little cost to the government as possible. The massive funding cuts will hit hardest those universities which admit the most working-class students, and which rely most heavily on funding from students and the government.

Tory universities minister, David Willetts, working with the Liberal Democrat business and skills secretary, Vince Cable, has put forward his plans for the future. Government approval of the first private, for-profit university since the 1970s is an indication of the direction of travel. Willetts has also been keen to distance himself from the 50% target set by New Labour, and wants to see students paying a larger amount of the cost of their education. He has made it clear that he intends to widen the scope for a competitive free market.

Generally, there is a move towards a more American-style system, with government funding playing less and less of a role in HE. Degrees taught in two years, studied for in evening classes or over the internet without face-to-face contact, are all likely to be rolled out in the next few years, questioning the idea of a degree being a three-year full-time course.

Ideally, the Conservatives would like to see the cap on tuition fees lifted completely, with the highest performing institutions free to charge as much as they like for their ‘product’. Even more so than now, this would leave the top universities as the preserve of the rich elite. However, it is unlikely that the government would choose such an option in the immediate term, particularly given the unstable nature of the coalition. The Liberal Democrats went into the general election pledging to scrap student fees, a policy which they have been quick to distance themselves from since entering the coalition. Instead, a more likely option is an increase in the cap, or some kind of graduate contribution system.

These attacks come at a time when young people are facing an uncertain future in general. The lack of decent jobs and training opportunities, combined with higher tuition fees, job losses among education workers and reductions in the small grants that are available, will lead to a potentially explosive situation. At the time of writing, the demonstration called for 10 November by the student union, NUS, and the UCU will be the first national demonstration against Con-Dem cuts. There is the potential for this to catch a mood among students and young people and in the wider working class, despite the reluctance of the NUS leadership to take a fighting stance on the cuts.

During times of intense workers’ struggle in the past, the student movement has been able to gather enough strength to force governments to retreat on education attacks. During the 1984-85 miners’ strike, for example, fierce resistance from students forced Margaret Thatcher, unable to fight the working class on all fronts, to retreat from her plans to introduce a form of tuition fees. (It was left to New Labour to introduce fees in 1998).

In the next period, fierce anger among young people and students will be combined with that of the working class as a whole. This has the potential to develop into a mass movement, forcing the government into retreat on education cuts and on other attempts to make working people pay for the crisis of capitalism.

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