Britain: Universities in crisis as coronavirus exposes reliance on tuition fees and marketisation

Record numbers of 18-year-olds in the UK have applied to go to university this September. Applications are up 1.6% for UK students and 10% for international students.

Despite record numbers, university bosses are making massive cuts to spending, including staff redundancies. They are terrified that the continued uncertainty around coronavirus will mean many students defer their place, leaving them financially ruined.

Research for the University and College Union (UCU) estimates there could be a £2.6 billion funding shortage next academic year, due to the potential drop in tuition fee income. In the current system, this could mean as many as 30,000 jobs in the sector are cut, with even more in the supply chain.

Both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and university bosses are pushing for a rushed return to campus learning, with the hope this secures tuition fee income from students, particularly overseas students who pay substantially higher fees.

But there is no doubt; a forced reopening will exacerbate the spread of coronavirus. In Leicester, the highest incidents in the current outbreak were of under 19-year-olds, disproving the idea that young people are safe. This short-termism could also see home students charged £9,250 for rip-off online-only courses, designed in mere weeks if campuses cannot fully reopen.

These attempts to make staff and students pay for the coronavirus funding crisis has the potential to see student fightback and workers’ action re-emerge.

Scrap fees, save jobs

The coronavirus crisis has exposed universities over-reliance on tuition fee income, based on the short-term balancing of books. The system doesn’t work in times of uncertainty, like now, when student numbers may temporarily fall, particularly high-fee paying international and postgraduate students.

University bosses’ solution is to implement widescale job cuts, increasing workload for already overworked staff, and further eroding student learning conditions. Meanwhile, the government has ignored appeals by both university bosses and unions to bail out the universities, only implementing some minor measures to help cash flow by releasing tuition fee payments early.

The university trade unions must organise to defend members’ jobs in the face of such attacks. Campus trade unions should make the demand for ‘opening up of the books’ to inspection by workers and their unions.

In 2018, universities sat on combined reserves of over £44 billion. The average vice-chancellor pay is now £350,000 a year. Campus unions should take a no-cuts stance, arguing for the use of reserves and borrowing.

A decade of marketisation misery

The current attacks come on top of more than a decade of austerity, underfunding and increased privatisation, which have seen education across the board suffer. School academy trust bosses, college chief execs and university vice-chancellor pay packets have soared. In contrast, the majority of education staff have seen their working conditions driven down.

Since 2010, universities have seen year-on-year income increases, but expenditure on staff pay fell by 3.35%. At the same time, capital expenditure – spending on buildings, land and equipment – shot up 35%.

This spending is aimed at maximising profits by attracting the highest number of students possible. But the quality of education students receive when they arrive has been decimated.

Lecture theatres are overflowing on oversubscribed courses. There are few, if any, additional staff employed to manage increased student numbers, meaning reduced contact time with academic staff. Books, computers, printers and library desks are difficult to access because of over-demand.

Under the free-market system, research is driven by the needs of business and not the needs of society. Research is often funded by big companies who then try and sell their findings back to us for profit.

If there isn’t profit to be made, they abandon the projects. Following the Sars outbreak in the early 2000s, a new vaccine, which could have helped prepare us for this current crisis, was dropped due to lack of profitability.

Government and charity funding is only awarded through short or fixed-term grants, distributed via competitive bidding processes that favour cheap, short-term projects and quick results. An estimated £1 billion worth of researchers’ time is spent on failed bids each year in Europe, time which should be solving the problems we face in society.

The instability of the current research and teaching funding system also means the proliferation of fixed-term and casual work, which creates a highly competitive research and teaching landscape.

Famous physicist Peter Higgs said that he would not get a job now, as he would not be considered productive enough for current research standards, where researchers are expected to “keep churning out papers”. The pursuit of profit is holding back the development of society.

Tuition fees have been one of the main drivers behind this marketisation of education. The Tories continue with this policy, even though the student loan system is now more expensive for the UK government than before tuition fees were introduced. With only 30% of students able to repay their loans in full, the debt pile is growing with added interest. Total student debt is currently £121 billion and expected to hit £450 billion by 2050.

Nationalisation is only way out

As well as fighting to save jobs, we must campaign for the renationalisation of universities, running them as a public service and not a business. The government has shown that the money is there, paying the wages of nine million furloughed workers. The Bank of England has pumped more than £700 billion into the economy since the start of the pandemic.

The renationalisation of universities as a public service would not only avert the funding crisis, but also allow universities to play a vital role in Covid recovery. It would secure jobs and offer hope to thousands of young people and workers facing the misery of unemployment.

Even pro-capitalist spokespeople say massive reforms of the sector are necessary, given the astronomical amounts of debt building up through unpaid student loans. But any market solution will be temporary at best, and will not solve the issues of bad learning and working conditions.

For that, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how universities are organised. Instead, universities should be democratically run in the interests of everyone.

The Socialist Party fights for the scrapping of tuition fees, with all education costs publicly funded in full with living grants for all students. Existing student debt should also be written off, sparing thousands of young people from the burden of debt.

The fee system is the leading cause of the current crisis. Any measure other than scrapping fees will be a short-term solution, fundamental problems will remain.

We also fight for long-term, public investment in research. This would allow universities to be a valuable resource in the fight against climate change, helping drive more sustainable means of production, developing sustainable technology and retraining the workforce to use it.

University renationalisation has many more benefits. Students are charged extortionate rates for university halls, some built more than 50 years ago, which generate further income for universities.

If profit was removed, and universities publicly funded, rooms could be charged at much lower rates, giving more disposable income to students. Students could focus on their studies rather than working several jobs to pay rent.

Similarly, as publicly funded services, everyone in the community could benefit from university facilities, such as sport and leisure services, library resources and meeting rooms. Lifelong learning could be advanced, with a variety of evening classes freely accessible to workers in the community.

Give workers, students and community democratic control

For the true benefits of renationalisation to be felt, decision making would need to be in the hands of university workers, students and local communities. We campaign for elected committees of staff and students, in conjunction with campus unions, to democratically decide how to run universities. This would ensure resources are spent where they are needed most, including guaranteeing the health and safety of all.

Increased democracy would also mean fair salary distribution, giving a significant pay rise to the workers that have seen their pay eroded by 20% in real terms since 2010. The current exam system could be overhauled, not only at university level but also making the application process fair, transparent and democratic.

A variety of courses could be introduced, with different types of qualifications based on community needs, not so-called ‘cash cow’ courses, which make the most money. Democratic worker and student control could overhaul the syllabus, including ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, a key demand of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The current crisis reveals the fundamental limitations of the capitalist system and its ability to provide for the majority in society. University workers, students and the wider workers movement cannot go back to the misery of ‘business as usual’ of marketisation misery.

We must fight for a completely different vision for higher education – one where research and learning can indeed be of benefit to everyone and not just a means to line the pockets of the bosses.

The alternative vision is more than achievable in a socialist society, where the distribution of resources can be democratically determined by all, for all. This is the vision that campus unions and the student movement must fight for as part of the immediate task of defending against job losses.

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September 2020