Universities: a special boom

Submitted by AWL on 5 May, 2015 - 4:52 Author: Gerry Bates and Omar Raii

In 2010, when the Tory government reduced universities’ direct funding and replaced it with a licence to charge students £9,000 fees, it looked like that move might bring cuts in universities.

In fact universities are about the only area of apparently public endeavour to have had a boom — of a special sort.

The Financial Times (17 April) reports: “Across London, from the Olympic Park in the east to White City in the west, universities are breaking new ground... [with] campus extensions, building projects and acquisitions already worth a combined total of more than £4 billion”.

It is not just in London. Mike Boxall, a management consultant specialising in higher education, told the Guardian (18 March): “Almost every campus you go to is a building site”.

For example, York university “is in the middle of an unprecedented period of expansion and renewal... 20 new buildings on the original campus and... a campus expansion”.

Cardiff university plans to “transform a largely disused former industrial space into to a full-blown new campus”. Swansea university “has enjoyed a period of tremendous growth” and has started “the creation of the Bay Campus, a brand new £450 million development on the eastern approach to the city, together with the transformation of our existing campus”.

Coventry university has a “master plan” to redevelop a large chunk of the city’s centre currently occupied by four major council buildings. At Warwick university, on the edge of the same city, “new science buildings are currently under development along with a new extension to Warwick Business School”. Sussex university has an expansion scheme which, it claims, will create more than 2,000 new jobs at the university and in local suppliers.

Huddersfield university is erecting large new buildings for its law school and its school of music, humanities and media. Glasgow university will expand its campus into a new 14-acre area.

Government controls on student numbers are to be removed in 2015-16, and the government reckons on 60,000 more people entering higher education straight away.

Some universities — Aston, University College London, Bristol, Exeter — already increased their intake by more than 35 per cent just in 2011-3. Now Essex University plans to increase its student numbers by 50% between 2013 and 2019.

This is a boom coming not from a public decision to put more resources into higher education, but from market forces mediated through student fees. 70% of university bosses told Mike Boxall’s consulting company that for them “government policies that undermine market opportunities” are “a major concern”.

More and more employers use applicants’ university records as a cheap-and-easy measure of their willingness to jump through hoops, usually more or less regardless of what exactly the applicants are supposed to have learned at university and whether they remember any of it.

School leavers, reasonably enough, see getting through university as a necessary step to finding a halfway stable job. Again, the content of the courses comes second to the job market credentials.

Each university piles in the students and seeks to give its campus extra job market prestige by hiring big name professors, while delegating much of the actual teaching to harassed casual staff. After all, what the students learn, if anything, is secondary: what matters is that they come out with a prestigious certificate.

The competition is likely, over time, to separate universities even more into different “leagues”.

The consultants found 83% of university bosses predicting a “super league” of maybe as few as half a dozen universities; and at the other end of the market many expected “a significant number of institutional failures and bankruptcies” and “significant rationalisation through mergers and takeovers”.

London students strike for lower rents

Students at UCL and SOAS universities in London are fighting back against years of increased rents and worsening living conditions with the best tool available to tenants, the rent strike.

Events began at UCL where there has been year of student activists fighting a UCL Cut the Rent campaign, set up to reverse UCL’s year on year above-inflation rent increases that have served to put so many students off studying at the university.

Many of the residence halls cost well over £150 a week to live in and more and more of the halls are becoming privatised. Rent strikes were discussed and due to the propagandising effect this has had, students at Hawkridge House (a residence hall for UCL students) have come out fighting this term.

Following massive delays to building works, many students have had to experience serious disruption (during exam revision time), with some students having to constantly close their curtains for privacy (with builders working outside), leading to decreased light.

This, along with the overall deteriorating condition in the halls including an infestation of mice, led to dozens of students withholding their rent. Almost immediately UCL made concessions, agreeing to delay the building works until after exams. Following a continuation of the rent strike, the college agreed to give compensation to the students.

This has galvanised students at other UCL halls (Max Rayne Hall and Campbell House) to take similar actio. All the campaigns are ongoing.

At SOAS’ privately-run halls, similar appalling conditions have led residents to withhold over £100,000 in rent. This includes cockroach and rodent infestations, water outages, excessive delays to repairs, reports of bullying and staff misconduct not being taken seriously, staff and security entering rooms/flats without notice, accessibility issues (including a ramp being closed off for two days and the accessible toilet being used as a store cupboard).

For this students have to pay over £150. That is the disaster of privatised halls.

Students have filed an appeal (with thus far no agreement on compensation) and are hoping to continue their action until they see concessions.

When students take action against privatisation as well as unacceptable and expensive living conditions, there is an enormous potential to get real results.

Housing has become a live issue in the student movement. Let’s hope action at UCL and SOAS will spark a bigger nationwide fightback. Organising works!

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