'Staff working conditions are student learning conditions'
On Saturday, thousands of students and education workers took to the streets of London under the banner ‘United For Education’. The demonstration was jointly organised by the National Union of Students and University and College Union.
Student protests have been an annual occurrence in recent years, from the widespread outrage at the increase in tuition fees in 2010, to anger at the initial Higher Education Green Paper this time last year – which passed its Third Reading in the House of Commons this week as the Higher Education and Research Bill.
Alongside clear calls for free education, parts of this bill led to the demonstration on Saturday: in particular, the plan for a Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF. The TEF proposes to award universities with a Gold, Silver or Bronze award, based on a series of metrics including their success in the National Student Survey.
Universities who do well in these metrics will once again be able to increase their tuition fees, in line with inflation at first but inevitably to be uncapped, as part of the ongoing marketisation of our education system.
The National Student Survey (NSS) is just one of many ways universities are increasingly pressuring staff to meet arbitrary metrics.
It asks final year students to rate their experience in various areas, and is then used to create new targets for staff, ignoring the unconscious bias proven to exist within it (BME and female lecturers repeatedly receive lower scores regardless of teaching ability).
It also bears absolutely no relevance to actual ‘teaching excellence’, if this at all could be measured.
Meanwhile, we are seeing rampant casualisation in Higher Education. Growing numbers of academics are on zero hour and casual contracts.
This uncertain environment is used to strip workers of their basic employment rights, and means staff are continually used as a pawn as universities strive to make profit in what is soon to become a free market environment.
Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and a combination of terrible employment standards with increased pressure on staff will not lead to ‘teaching excellence’ by any definition.
From the perspective of academic workers, further cause for concern in the Bill was the shift in ownership of teaching content from academics and accrediting bodies to the government. Research funding (leading to research carried out and therefore often teaching content) is allocated at the discretion of accrediting bodies and national research organisations.
The HE Bill moves this allocation into the hands of the government – leaving funding for research into climate change, for example, in the hands of whoever is in power.
The Bill also sets the stage for private providers to establish themselves as universities and distribute degrees and ‘education’. TEF rankings allow failing universities to be shut down rather than publicly funded, suggesting these private providers could step in to fill that gap in the sector, further allowing a creeping privatization.
Meanwhile, access to education for the most vulnerable members of society is repeatedly being slashed. Maintenance grants have been abolished; NHS bursaries are soon to follow. Disabled Students’ Allowance has been reduced enormously.
Further Education is in a funding crisis – jobs are at risk and courses closing due to shrinking college budgets. The cuts made to education have not been made at random; this is a strategic attack on the poorest and most disadvantaged students.
We are seeing a creeping privatisation in this sector as in many others. For these reasons and more, universities and colleges took to the streets.
The demonstration on Saturday was not expected to stop the reforms dead in their tracks, but were a statement of strength from the campaign that, now it has support from both staff and student national unions, is only just getting started.
This starts with a boycott of the very metric the government proposes to base the reforms on: the National Student Survey. That a group of students deliberately sabotaging the survey would impact the basis of this framework so severely highlights its ineptitude as a metric, and that is exactly what NUS has now called for.
Final year students on every campus are being asked to boycott the NSS, and to withhold the very data the government intends to use to raise fees.
Sally Williamson is a recent graduate and an activist with Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts
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