Less than 48 hours after ten thousand students hit the streets calling for free education and living grants for all on 4 November, Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced the long-awaited Green Paper on Higher Education.
If the proposals become law, it would mean nothing short of the end of public higher education. This Green Paper follows neatly on from the fee hike of 2010. £9,000 tuition fees ushered in a new type of education system.
Students have to make astronomical investments in their education. Rather than education being about a love of learning, or for the social good, going to university is now a means of improve one’s employability and giving oneself an edge in an insecure job market. Universities are becoming factories modelling students in the shape of the ideal graduate worker under capitalism. This will only get worse. If we hand over the power to set fees to cabinet ministers, tuition fees under the Tories will rapidly rise. Within a few years fees will be uncapped. Future students will be taking out mortgage-level debts in order to stay in education.
One of the other more worrying aspects of the Green Paper is the fleshing out of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which measures teaching against a set of market-oriented metrics and tick-boxes. TEF will be ramped up, using data from the highly flawed National Student Survey (NSS) to back up this policy. The NSS functions on the basis that students are consumers, and asks questions to fit this agenda. The answers that students give aren’t used for the benefit of students’ education, but to bully staff and justify course cuts and closures. TEF will now seek to measure “value for money”, implement “reputational and financial” incentives and penalties for institutions that fail to meet its market-focused standards.
The TEF narrative ignores the fact that good teaching is tied, first and foremost, to the quality of working conditions for teaching staff. Already staff at all levels are facing huge amounts of pressure from management to study, research, write, teach, mark, and hold office hours in a short working week. Graduate Teaching Assistants, on the lower end of the pay scale and typically on precarious contracts, often find themselves earning less than the equivalent of the Living Wage but are increasingly overstretched, working much more than their paid hours. This is having a huge impact on the mental health of academic staff, exhausted by their workload and insecurity.
The Green Paper hopes to enforce gradated tuition fees between institutions. Universities will be judged according to graduate employment data in order to qualify for higher caps on fees. Arts, humanities and social science universities and departments will inevitably take the hit as graduates of these subjects are less likely to enter highly lucrative careers. Educational programmes offered by universities will be whittled down. Academic diversity and freedom will be diminished. Critical thinking, empowerment, and the development of art and ideas, will no longer be of concern.
This Green Paper threatens a much more damaging attack on higher education that the fee hike in 2010. It will be harder to fight against because at first glance it seems quite technical, in contrast to the clear attack that was the trebling of tuition fees. But this Green Paper means the full marketisation of the higher education sector, and almost certainly uncapped fees. Our vision of public, accessible education funded by taxing the rich, for the benefit of everybody, will become almost impossible to reach. To win, we need students and staff organising together to resist these changes, through protests, occupations and strikes. But with NUS and UCU currently apprehensive about leading the fight, mobilisation at the grassroots level of these organisations and on university campuses is necessary to defeat it.
What the government is proposing
• Tuition fees to be set by ministers without a vote in Parliament. Unlimited, unaccountable fee rises, setting the stage for uncapped fees within a few years.
• Fees to rise at least with inflation from 2017. In order for universities to qualify for this steady raising of the fees cap, they will have to meet standards laid out by the market-oriented Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
• A ramping up of the TEF. Universities’ performance based on market-focused metrics, such as graduate employment. This will calculate “good teaching” on the basis of the degree to which subjects are focused towards pleasing employers and big business.
• The Research Excellence Framework (REF) will become narrower, more exacting, and more metric-focused, further restricting academic freedom and debate.
• Private providers of education to be given help to cut into public universities with quicker access to funding and no caps on student numbers; it will be easier for institutions to meet the standards to call themselves a university and award degrees.
• Parallel development of the management of “exit” of institutions from the market. This tells us that the Tories are expecting some publicly-funded universities to collapse under the pressure of fully-private institutions entering the market.
• Probable increased government control of student unions, tied to the kind of undemocratic measures in the current anti-trade union bill. They are seeking to undermine our right and ability to defend ourselves collectively through our unions.
• Universities will no longer have to comply with Freedom of Information requests.