Higher education is being put up for sale; we must fight back today.
Higher education in the UK is under threat. The government has published a series of reforms aiming to continue the process of privatising universities which began with the introduction and tripling of tuition fees. This stage, however, is more complex and will be carried out with more subtlety. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is one of numerous reforms to the university sector, all with the common objective of transforming it into a market.
A national demonstration is planned today in London and is expected to see thousands of students take the streets in defence of our right to education. Now, more than ever, it is essential to stand up to this kind of damaging reform. May’s government will do everything it can to hide its intentions under meaningless rhetoric. It must be made clear; without resistance, it will be a matter of years before Tories put our universities up for sale; we mustn’t let that happen.
The whole plan is in the government’s Higher Education White Paper. The main policy to be introduced - the TEF - is a new ratings system which will rank universities and divide them into categories of ‘Meets Expectations’, ‘Excellent’ or ‘Outstanding’. TEF ratings, along with other criteria such as National Student Survey ratings, will all determine the quality of universities in a renewed system of ‘intense’ and more regular quality reviews.
Universities will have to strive to meet a set of standardised criteria (‘expectations’). Those that do this will, as a prize, be allowed to maintain their tuition fees, while those that don’t will have them slashed and will receive no funding from the government, as it is not in the responsibility of the state to support ‘failing institutions’.
Universities with high ratings, especially in the TEF, will be allowed not only to maintain but to raise their tuition fees. Higher ranked universities will also be allowed to lift the cap on number of students.
The universities obtaining a sufficiently high TEF rating will survive, as they will attract more students and, thanks to higher fees, will be offering more courses and opportunities. Other universities will disappear on the whole. This is why we must not let the TEF become the norm; an attempt at rigorously measuring the quality of universities will destroy universities’ diversity in teaching and environment.
Also in the list of planned higher education reforms is a more lenient system for allowing ‘high-quality providers’ to obtain Degree Awarding Powers, or DAPs and call themselves universities. These ‘providers’ – big profit companies - will be given near-total freedom to open institutions. This, according to the government white paper, ‘will enable more specialist higher education providers to enter the market’.
This is not a conspiracy theory, there are endless statements in the white paper that could not make it clearer; the marketisation of our education, in which students are consumers and universities are products is flourishing. To take just one example, look at page 8; Closure of universities is labelled ‘natural’, and ‘healthy’, while big profit businesses take control and set the pace for a new profit-orientated university system. This is the next step in the construction of a homogenised neoliberal world in which rights do not exist and the only aspirations we have are to become richer.
I’d like to say I expected this; I expected universities to be divided much like schools, into state-funded or private. This would offer students from lower income backgrounds a choice to get free education, although ultimately only private university graduates would have any real employability prospects. It seems I was optimistic; the reality is similar, except that the cheaper option won’t exist. The divide will be between stagnant universities falling behind due to their average TEF rankings but still costing 9 grand a year offering degrees which will be labelled insignificant, or rapidly expanding universities, some privately owned, charging extortionate amounts and acting as a magnet to unlimited amounts of students and, subsequently, staff as well. All of this is being masked under rhetoric of more ‘choice’, ‘competition’ and ‘flexibility’, multi-million companies being rebranded as ‘high quality providers’. Don’t believe a word of it; the higher education reforms will turn our university system into a market dominated by big business, driving universities upwards in price and downwards in diversity.
But rather than sitting back and watching it happen, it is time to make it clear as students that we are against these destructive reforms.
In a time where the very right to protest is under threat, we must protest today and show we will not be belittled. Protest, often dismissed as complaint, brought the Polish government to a U-turn over plans to ban abortion, caused UCL administration to freeze rising rent prices and brought Lego’s sponsorship of the Daily Mail to a halt, all in the last few months.
We are dangerously tending towards a government that is not held to account either in parliament or on the streets. The process of privatising education and raising tuition fees will be made as complex and inaccessible as possible. This over complication of the process aims to spur the apathy and indifference on which the conservative government thrives. It is time to organise, to form and support groups and societies putting pressure on universities not to buy into the TEF (UCL students can sign the petition here), encouraging students to boycott the NSS, or to go on rent strike. These are just a few of the campaigns fighting for a fairer society. Join the protest today, bring as many people as you can and let your voice be heard; show the government that we will not see the destruction of our universities.
Engaging in protest and organised politics from below does not make you a communist pothead – this stigma must end. If you believe that education is a right then this government is acting against you, and I encourage you to speak out.
Students are not consumers, and universities are not products. Education is not a luxury, it is a right.