“Universities under Labour”: a NCAFC workshop report from The World Transformed

 

NCAFC workshop participants engaging in group discussion

NCAFC workshop participants engaging in group discussion

On Sunday 24th September, activists from NCAFC ran a session at The World Transformed entitled “Universities Under a Labour Government”. The session brought together around 60 participants with a range of experiences and perspectives on Higher Education (HE).

The aim of the workshop was to collectively explore what an alternative HE system could look like under a Labour government. During the general election, Labour’s pledges to scrap tuition fees and reinstate maintenance grants gained mass support not just from students but also wider society – this is a great foundation on which the movement can build. However, these were the only policies in the HE section of the manifesto. NCAFC has always been clear that scrapping fees is not enough if we truly want to create an alternative to a marketised HE system, and thus there is a great opportunity for the left to push within Labour for a set of radical and comprehensive policies around universities.

The session began with a brief overview of the current state of higher education under the Tories, which covered the following themes:

  • Marketisation; system driven by “value for money” rhetoric
  • Enormous fees and debt
  • Casualisation of staff
  • Widening gap between workers and senior management
  • Mental health crisis
  • Soaring rents and cost of living crisis
  • The employability “conveyor belt”
  • Strengthening links between universities and corporations

Following on from this, the workshop participants were split into 3 different “perspective” groups – ‘students’, ‘workers’ (both academic and non-academic), and ‘wider society’. The following question was then posed:

  • What is the purpose and value of HE, and what key principles should underpin it?

The 3 groups then endeavoured to collectively respond to these questions from the specific perspective assigned to each of them. A summary of the key discussion points from each group are as follows:

“STUDENTS” PERSPECTIVE

  • Encouraging and fostering critical & political thinking
  • Advancing knowledge and skills; thus equipping students for jobs (though this should not be the main focus!)
  • Pursuing interests and passions
  • Accessible to people of all identities and backgrounds
  • Having a diversity of knowledge
  • Having fun!
  • Having parity with other forms of education
  • Democratic and collective
  • Collaboration and partnership between students and workers
  • Flexibility within studying
  • Being an integrated part of a community
  • Being progressive and socially responsible; equipping students with knowledge and tools to strive for a better world

“WORKERS” PERSPECTIVE

  • Critical thinking and creation of new visions
  • Democratic governance; an end to managerialism and hierarchical structures
  • In-housing/an end to outsourcing
  • Building alliances between students and workers
  • Unionisation and solidarity; improved working terms and conditions are a precondition but not an end goal
  • Challenging consumer mentality
  • Co-production of knowledge
  • Transformative pedagogy

“WIDER SOCIETY” PERSPECTIVE

  • Universities and local communities should be integrated into each other
  • Controlled rents so as not to negatively impact housing in local communities
  • Role in training NHS workers needs to be factored into workforce planning
  • Recognition that many students are workers in the local community
  • Centres of knowledge shouldn’t be exclusive; an end to profit motives
  • Stop corporations on campuses
  • Unis should be public organisations
  • In-house employment; strengthening accountability
  • Local communities should have open access to HE; e.g libraries, room bookings, public lecture series
  • Academic content should be freely shared with local communities, and those communities should be seen as collaborators in education too; e.g jointly organising courses with community organisations
  • Teaching and research based on what is socially useful for local communities

Following on from these break-out discussions, we formed new smaller discussion groups comprising of 2 or 3 participants from each of the 3 prior groups. These new groups were tasked with utilising the high-level principles explored in the first group discussion to collectively generate ideas for HE policy that the left should advocate for within Labour.

The policy ideas created by the groups covered a wide range of different areas and angles. For the purposes of this report we have consolidated all the ideas submitted to us and separated them out into the following broad themes/categories:

ACCESSIBILITY

  • Free childcare on campus
  • Universal living grants for all
  • Cap private school numbers in unis/expand uni places to ensure state school students are not shut out? (Ideally, abolish private schools! Though it’s not technically HE policy…)
  • An offering of flexible, non-traditional courses e.g evening classes, short courses
  • Language support for international students

PUBLIC EDUCATION

  • Ban private providers
  • Public access to certain university spaces as well as academic content e.g journals and lectures
  • University investment into local communities e.g social housing programmes

WORKERS’ RIGHTS

  • Proper employment contracts; abolish outsourcing and casualisation
  • Pay ratios between highest and lowest paid workers; 5:1? 3:1..?

DEMOCRACY

  • Research and resources being publicly owned and decided; based on what is socially useful
  • Replace “Vice Chancellor model” with democratic interdepartmental model; key positions elected
  • Fair student, worker and community representation on governing boards
  • Robust accountability mechanisms

FUNDING

  • Equalised funding for all institutions; fair and comprehensive public funding formula
  • Scrap all fees; including for international and PG students!
  • Parity of funding for faculties/disciplines as well as full-time and part-time

MEASURING SUCCESS…?

  • Abolish league tables
  • Scrap the NSS (National Student Survey)!
  • Abolish Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

 

At the end of the session, discussion groups fed back one or two key policy ideas they had generated and explained what the underpinning principles were behind the policy. In this feedback discussion it was noted that a lot of the policy ideas explored centred around areas which, under the current system, fall under the autonomous decision-making remit of individual universities. In order to overcome this a Labour government would – assuming that under Labour universities would be centrally funded if fees are to be scrapped – likely have to set out a framework that universities who receive state funding would be obliged to adhere to. Thus it is clear that Labour must be willing to radically overhaul the current system and be bold in implementing an alternative.

This workshop only scratched the surface of what a truly free, accessible, democratic and liberated HE system could look like in practice. It is the job of student movement and the wider left to continue to develop and build on these ideas in order to push towards a political programme in HE which is both winnable and transformative.

If you’re interested in these discussions, and you’d like to contribute to them by writing a piece for our website, get in touch with us via [email protected]. We want to hear from you!

Big thanks to The World Transformed for inviting us to give this workshop and to all those who came along and participated in what was an incredibly lively and exciting session. See you next year; if not sooner!

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