Sheffield’s fee rise shows why we need disruptive action

sheff tefJosh Berlyne, University of Sheffield

On Monday Sheffield University announced it will be raising tuition fees. As part of opting in to the Teaching Excellence Framework, fees will rise to £9,250 for undergraduates next year, and may rise to £10,000 by 2020.

This has happened despite over 3,000 students, staff and alumni signing an open letter calling on the university to opt out of the TEF.  It has happened despite Sheffield having a Vice-Chancellor who has consistently opposed tuition fees, and who has been vocal in his opposition to the TEF. This highlights a number of important points.

First, opposition to the marketisation and privatisation of universities—which fee rises, the TEF, and the higher education reforms more generally embody—will not be successful if it is localised. Universities are subject to the imperatives of a financial system which is out of their control. Any semblance of democratic control over the financing of higher education (if it could ever have been said to exist) has been blasted away; with central governmental funding slashed, universities must rely on tuition fees to sustain their budgets. As inflation rises, costs rise. This means tuition fees must also rise.

This leads to the second point. Since universities are subject to these financial imperatives, completely out of democratic control, winning the moral argument is not sufficient. No matter how convinced a Vice-Chancellor is that education should be free, they will always give in to the short-term financial pressures imposed on them. Students need to make it in the financial interests of the university and the state to act in the interests of students and workers. That means disruptive action.

The present state of affairs in universities means that the interests of students and workers are placed secondary to the financial interests of universities.  This is the wrong way around. The interests of universities should be put in line with the interests of students and workers.  The only way to do this is through democratic control.

The process of marketisation, which hands control over to the imperatives of the market, is being driven forwards by the present round of higher education reforms.  Thus resisting these reforms is a crucial part of the battle for democratic control.  The NSS boycott, which is being organized on 21 campuses across the country, is one way to generalize this battle.  In disrupting the ways in which universities are internally managed, and disrupting the management of the UK higher education sector as a whole, the boycott gives students the power to force concessions from the government.  On those campuses where a boycott is happening, students should get involved; on those where a boycott is not yet being organized, students should make organizing one their priority.

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