The government’s Higher Education White Paper that was released on Monday 16th May 2016 ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ is a clear ideological attack on students, workers and universities as truly public institutions. Here are our initial responses, we will have more for you over the next few days (keep an eye on our social media @NCAFC_UK fb.com/NCAFC ) and a full length response as soon as possible.
Free Education is ‘value for money’
One of things we keep hearing about from the government is that universities need to be ‘value for money’. This value will come from bringing in more ‘choice’ for students in where and what they study. This is very much an illusion and we should treat it as such. When you have to pay at least £9,000 a year upfront, you don’t have a proper choice. Students are valued only as consumers, the only choice they are offered is where to spend their money. The proposals are vague on SUs, mentioning more government oversight and scrutiny into how their funding is used. Really the only true value for money option is free education.
The privatisation of the UK’s higher education system
We’re seeing the start of a gradual end to public higher education in this country. Under the proposals laid out by the government, we will see private providers, including the likes of Google and Facebook, able to open their own universities if they wish. It will also create the possibility of institutions failing and leaving the market. This is most likely to affect universities which are traditionally known for widening participation such as London Met. These institutions most at risk have more working class and BME students than their Russell Group counterparts. These reforms won’t necessarily create the possibility of institutions failing but what it does say, explicitly, is that the government won’t help them if they do.
The government also claim that the market will squeeze out certain degrees. A lot is said about “mickey mouse degrees,” deemed useless as they don’t produce the most employable graduates. In practice, this will hit important areas like the arts and humanities. Society needs both artists and biochemists but the goal of the government is to see university become a pipeline for employers. This will at the very least mean funding cuts for lots of less profitable degrees and even the closing of some departments. We’ve already seen this happening with the increasing marketisation of education – Queen’s University Belfast completely cutting sociology is just one example. The White Paper will only make this more common.
There are a couple of silver linings. We’ve seen the government drop the idea to exempt universities from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and that the process for lifting the fee cap won’t change – it will still require a vote in Parliament. The plans to introduce variable fees have also been delayed, although not abandoned. This buys us more time to fight them.
What does ‘Teaching Quality’ mean for workers?
The flagship proposal in the HE White Paper is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Proposed to mirror the much detested Research Excellence Framework (REF), the TEF measures neither ‘teaching’ nor ‘excellence’ in any sense that you would imagine but rather looks at things such as graduate employment to see if teaching is ‘excellent’.This will undoubtedly lead to metric-driven teaching and increased pressure on staff to meet pointless targets rather than actually focus on teaching. It will also justify universities in continuing to casualise teaching staff. Casualised teachers simply cannot teach as well as teachers on fixed contracts due to stress, financial pressures, and having to find employment in summer months. Moreover lecturers’ pay has fallen by 14.5% in real terms since 2009 and UCU members (the academics’ trade union) will be going on strike on 25th and 26th May 2016 over pay including the ever persistent gender pay gap.
Does the White Paper ‘put students at its heart’?
If by students you mean a pliant future workforce. It is quite clear to all that the government calling the White Paper ‘student centric’ is a highly cynical move. It’s about getting private providers in Higher Education and dressing it up as ‘choice’. It’s also about pleasing big business – employers will be represented on TEF review panels, which means that Apple and BP could influence the curriculum. When the government talk about “student choice,” they mean making the ‘right kind of choice’ which in this case means the choice to study a degree that will see you get a well paid job. This might be a good time to mention that graduate employment is far more linked to what your parents do than what you study, and students from liberation groups are more likely to struggle on the job market regardless of their degree. Under these measures, university education would mean nothing but expensive training for the job you won’t get.
You cannot have a truly transformative, liberating education when the trade-off is a lifetime of debt. Competition under the guise of choice will not give us the education we want and need. Only robust public funding, more democracy and collaboration between staff and students can do that.
Why we need to fight the NSS and DLHE
The government has proposed an increase in fees linked to TEF, in large part using scores from the National Student Survey and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (the survey taken six months after graduation looking at employment). This measures has been delayed until TEF Year 2 which is academic year 2017/18. Then, institutions that score highly will be able increase fees in line with inflation, and by the 2018/19 the government would introduce varied levels of fee caps.
The NSS and DLHE are key parts of the TEF which will affect academics and students alike. This is the central pillar of the government’s proposals and what we have proposed to wreck with the policy we passed at NUS, calling for a boycott or a sabotage of the surveys. A successful boycott or sabotage will render these surveys useless thus destroying the credibility of TEF.
We now need to pass motions supporting the boycott/sabotage at as many student unions as possible. Here is a model motion. This summer we will work with the NUS VP Higher Education who will write to the government informing that if they don’t withdraw the TEF we intend to wreck it. From the start of the new term we will be running campaigns up and down the country to collect pledges from finalists agreeing to boycott or sabotage the 2017 NSS and 2018 DLHE. If you would like to get more involved come to our summer conference.