Higher education is a social good, not a commodity
In Monday’s white paper, the Tories announced plans to hand the future of higher education over to the benevolent governance of the market.
From 2017, universities will be ranked not by the quality of teaching they provide but by the employability of its graduates and then, later, those which perform best will be allowed to raise their tuition fees in accordance.
Regulations on academically illiterate corporations dispensing ‘degrees’ for profit will also be relaxed.
If these reforms go through, ability to pay will once again become a key determinant in the quality of one’s education. With maintenance grants having also been abolished, it’s absurd optimism to think that the new ‘Office for Students’ would have any hope of broadening public access to universities under such a system.
Pondering in the jargon of a third-rate social scientist, Universities Minister Jo Johnson has rather tellingly named higher education a ‘knowledge economy’ whose purpose isn’t the dispersion of learning throughout society but to herd students into the labour market.
So we are at a crossroads. Either higher education is a social good, or it’s a commodity with which starry-eyed social climbers can try and outpace the realities of diminishing opportunities and chronic youth unemployment. It cannot be both.
A university system built on ‘consumer satisfaction’ atomises students, encouraging us to scrap among ourselves in a darkening labour market when we ought to be speaking collectively, and without apology, in defence of our rights – rights now as students and in the future as working people.
Teaching and learning are in serious decline. Seminars and lecture theatres are more crammed than ever, cuts have forced course closures and redundancies and academic staff are at breaking point –meanwhile, billions of resources across the sector are being wasted on fancy vanity projects intended to lure in endless hordes of prospective applicants. This is what ‘student choice’ looks like.
It’s not enough to pick bones with this reform or that – the left, the labour movement and students have to be bold all at once. We need free and universally accessible education which gives every single person the right to study what they please and which boasts well-resourced staff on secure contracts. Fund it by corporations, and by taxing the rich.
So far the Labour Party has been embarrassingly tepid on all of this, putting out sedate comments about the white paper’s ‘risks’ and ‘omissions’ and entirely oblivious to the destruction that a neoliberal higher education system yields the social movement at its base. Students need to take the lead, or it will be much too late.
At the annual conference of the National Union of Students last month, for the first time ever delegates voted to organise a mass boycott of the National Student Survey, a career-centred metric that will be key to the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ by which the government intends to rank universities.
But since the introduction of the TEF will now be delayed for three years, that vote will lose a distressing amount of its potency.
The NUS has been bought off like this before: conjure up some diabolical policy, then temporarily make a ‘concession’ or two and watch with unspoiled glee as the careerist bureaucrats at the head of the student movement hail ‘victory’ to a student population barely aware of their existence. This white paper must not be one of those times.
As I write, student unions across the country are launching referenda on whether or not to disaffiliate from the NUS – all as a result of embittered centrists appalled that ‘their’ union has been handed over to a moderately left-wing leadership for the first time in a generation.
There couldn’t be a worse time to divide the student movement.
If the NUS is serious about seizing momentum, then it needs to prove that it can fight for students – not just in polite meetings with Tory ministers but on the street, and across every campus in this country.
The government’s ridiculous plans to turn all schools into academies were defeated. Even Jeremy Hunt and his war with the NHS might be in retreat. If we have the will, we can save our universities system too.
Mark Crawford is a postgraduate student at UCL and a member of the Labour PartyLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.