“In Tory Britain higher education is a commodity and universities are businesses”

Higher education was once a social good guaranteed by the state. The state poured money into higher education as an investment in the economy and the highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce it would produce. But the state also invested in higher education because academia of itself was valued, and society was enriched by ensuring entry wasn’t contingent on family wealth.

Ever-increasing tuition fees and the removal of state funding in higher education has overturned this guarantee. Higher education is now seen through the prism of market-transaction, with students as consumers and universities as service providers. Universities are forced into becoming efficient money-making enterprises as they face colossal financial constraints. Education has become a commodity that individuals themselves must purchase.

The relationship between pupils and educators has become defined by value for money. How many times have you heard someone say they don’t pay nine grand for a lecture to finish ten minutes early, or for the faculty to not reply to their email?

The plurality of values associated with higher education have become subordinate to a single crystallisation of value: price. Social mobility is down the drain. Instead, like all commodities, access to higher education has become restricted according to wealth. The relationship between pupils and educators has become defined by value for money. How many times have you heard someone say they don’t pay nine grand for a lecture to finish ten minutes early, or for the faculty to not reply to their email? It is now down to individuals to find a way to invest in their skill sets to help future employers, or else find themselves barred from the graduate job market.

This process of marketization begins at the level of discourse; higher education has been deliberately represented and depicted by the Tory government as a commodity. The front of the 2016 white paper on the Higher Education and Research Bill is emblazoned with “Success as a Knowledge Economy” and is presented by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. In the second sentence of Jo Johnson’s foreword to the white paper he describes universities as “power houses of intellectual and social capital” and the very first section of the executive summary of the paper bears the heading “Creating a competitive market”. Indeed universities are already regulated by the Competition and Market’s Authority.

However this is far from where the process of marketization ends. The state has removed vast financial support from the sector. Market competition has been thrust on universities, and they are forced to reform themselves –through organisational restructuring, outsourcing and privatising– into money-making organisations able to weather new financial pressures.

At my own university, the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), a letter sent to staff last year detailed 184 courses that were to be cut across the institution –including some unique to Soas such as Urdhu– whilst new degrees such as International Relations and English have been introduced. Rare opportunities to study non-European cultures and language are threatened by profit, and already Soas spends more on its advertising department than its entire Africa department.

Employment in universities has also been streamlined for profit. It is now the case that the majority of academics or researchers at UK universities are on insecure, short-term contracts, with universities having been accused or appropriating the ‘sports-direct model’. Just as in the business model, the flip-side to this arrangement is a disproportionate increase in the pay for vice-chancellors and senior executives, many of whom reside over salaries upward of two, three and four hundred thousand pounds.

Things aren’t getting better. The aforementioned Higher Education and Research Bill has now passed through the House of Commons and will be put before the Lords. The bill contains the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which promises to rank universities as gold, silver, and bronze, and upon which they will have the right to charge students different amounts. Universities will have to compete with one another on a range of criteria designated by the government, in order to extort more money off students.

Whilst TEF presents a particularly bleak future for university accessibility and social mobility –with the top universities promising to become the most inaccessible– there is no denying a lot of damage has already been done. The axing of student maintenance grants has for example already removed vital financial support to students from less advantaged backgrounds.

In particular, the marketization of higher education has had profound financial implications for students, beyond the nine grand (and growing) tuition fees. Across the UK increasing fees has heralded large-scale privatisation of student housing stock, which is frequently transformed into ‘luxury’ student living as universities seek a short-term boost in revenue. According to the NUS the last two years has seen the price of student halls increase 18%, with the average room now representing 85% of the maximum student loan available.

This problem has been particularly severe in London, where the average rent per week for a room in student halls is £226, making a 38 week lease a whopping £8588. Part of the problem, as Diane Abbott hinted, is that “student housing is being made unaffordable for British students in order to encourage more foreign students who obviously make more money for the universities” –as they pay three times more money in tuition fees.

It is currently difficult to ascertain what reforms will take place in higher education, and how they will affect the students who want to study at university, and the academics that work in them. There is no doubt, however, that a reduction of tuitions fees is not going to materialise any time soon –despite Labour’s commitments in 2015, as well as at present under Jeremy Corbyn. Even the NUS has started to move its energy away from fees, instead focussing campaigns on TEF and the rising cost of student living. British exit from the European Union –which up until now has financed some 16% of UK universities’ research budget– is only going to aggravate economic pressures. So we can therefore expect further marketization of universities and education, with the silent death of social mobility masked behind the technocratic, market-orientated language of our Conservative government.


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