Fighting the commodification and casualisation of higher education

Mark Campbell, London Met UCU (Vice-chair), London Region UCU (Higher Education Chair)

Re-posted with permission from London Met UCU’s blog

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This Monday, London Met UCU published the damning conclusions of a workload survey we recently conducted. It’s main findings were the shocking, health damaging, increase in workload – following continuing mass redundancies, now affecting London Met’s permanent substantive staff. Essentially, contractual workload protections have been subverted through the convenient mechanism of line-managers not recognising ANY work other than face-to-face lecturer-student teaching as needing to be measured (but still expected under threat of discipline to be conducted). The documented survey comments highlighting those appalling lived-experiences are shocking.

However, what our survey also highlighted was the other, even more discriminating, and health-risking, side of the modern commodified dystopian university: a permanently exploited, zero-houred, reserve army of labour. These staff have zero job-security, zero-reward for years of service, zero-protection from redundancy (their zero-hour contract is constructed to allow them to be permanently-redundant between crumbs of work). The appalling conditions of casualised lecturing staff are not unique to London Met, and are shockingly highlighted in today’s Guardian front-page and accompanying articles.

London Met management may be ahead of the pack in their future-imperfect full on rush to a privatised market dystopia, but the rest of the university sector are now snapping at its heals and about to be let off the leash by the Higher Education Bill 2016.

All university staff, permanent substantive or casualised, have a vested interest in fighting to end the commodification of education, and its equally evil twin, the casualisation of university labour. We need permanent secure contracts for all staff, that truly reflect and reward ALL the work that we do, and we need enough staff that allow us to deliver the sort of quality service that our students deserve. The neo-liberal model has failed. Time to remove it from education.

In these circumstances, and particularly at this critical time, its an absolute disgrace that the current UCU leadership have acted to disarm our members in that fight by dropping our national industrial action and pay campaign that was explicitly aimed at taking on all our employers over their collective guilt and complicity over both increasing casualisation and the equally shocking increasing gender pay-gap.

FInally, with regards to the Higher Education Bill 2016, we don’t need fatally flawed measures of ‘teaching excellence’ or ‘student satisfaction surveys’ – indeed, we should be supporting the NUS decision to boycott the NSS. Instead, what we really need is proper investment in the essential public good that a university education is. That starts with recognising the critical role that university staff play in forming and delivering that public good. It means recognising, as the NUS does, that ‘staff working conditions are students learning conditions’. It means recognising that society as a whole inextricably benefits from an educated workforce and critically engaged citizenry, therefore society should pay for it through student grants and direct university block grants via increased business taxation. We need to break the rod of mass student indebtedness and free from their shackles our indentured university employees.

This is why I, and thousands of others, will be marching this Saturday in London, United for Education.

 

Why we’re marching: Grants not Debt, Stop the College Cuts & Stop the HE Reforms

This Saturday 19 November we will be marching with students, education workers and supporters from around the country. This demo is one part of the movement we need to defeat the government’s brutal attacks on education. To build that movement and win, we need to be crystal clear about our demands – to reverse the cuts to maintenance funding, stop the cuts to colleges, and stop the higher education reforms. And about how we demand a free, universally accessible, democratic education system should be built – by taxing the rich and taking the banks under democratic control. Read on to find out more – and please share! On Saturday, you can help NCAFC spread the word by finding our stall at the assembly point to get involved in distributing bulletins and placards.


Grants Not Debt!

grants-not-debt-matt-kirby-810x539The government has now replaced maintenance grants with additional loans. This divisive, toxic policy saddles the poorest students with immense amounts of debt. The Tories have gone through with their destructive, anti-working class politics despite evidence that maintenance grants improve access and that debt deters students from higher education. But we won’t let them win!

Maintenance grants have been scrapped (1998) and won back (2004) in the past, and we can do this again. We will have to employ a range of tactics, from lobbying to direct action, with examples including the #GrantsNotDebt Westminster Bridge blockade in January and the NUS National Demo on November 19th. If students and workers come together on the streets and beyond, we can put enough pressure on the government that we will win the reintroduction of maintenance grants.

This victory is the first step in a wider aim though. Winning back maintenance grants will be a huge victory and will improve access for millions of students, but it is still not enough to guarantee a truly accessible education system. We must push on further. Our aim should be this: living grants for all students, with everyone getting enough to have a decent standard of life, as a part of a free, liberated and democratic education system.

To move forward we need to redouble our efforts – building the movement by convincing more and more people of our positive alternative to the Tories’ attack. The idea of a workable free education system is being developed by individual campaigners on the ground, by free education activists groups such as NCAFC, and now by the largest political party in the UK, the Labour Party. Collectively, we have the strength knowledge and potential for action to win back maintenance grants through the #grantsnotdebt campaign and build the type of education system we want. To do this, we must fight together.


Stop the college cuts!

esol-cutsSince 2010 we’ve seen massive cuts in further and adult education spending and, according to trade unions and a leading King’s College London report, we’re now on a rapid road to the systematic obliteration of further education.

In 2010, the Coalition government scrapped Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the only support on offer for the poorest further education (FE) students. Since then, a stream of assaults on FE college funding have resulted in devastating cuts to jobs, courses and provision. Last year, the adult education budget was cut by a catastrophic 24%, and English for Speakers of Another Language (ESOL) classes by £45 million. With yet more funding set to be withdrawn, as many as 40% of colleges could close.

The services being cut are disproportionately relied upon by working class people, those returning for a second chance at education, and migrants – especially migrant women – seeking to learn the language. And education workers are suffering too, with swathes of redundancies, and those left behind pressed to work ever harder for less money.

The government had been seeking to organise the implementation of these cuts through the “Area Reviews”, pushing a series of closures and big mergers in England, and narrowing curricula down to serve the diktats of business leaders rather than the ambitions and interests of students. A similar process was already implemented in Scotland in 2011 and nearly halved the number of colleges there.

Now the government has suspended the reviews, but the cuts are still coming, making the future even murkier as the cuts will be implemented even more haphazardly.

We remain firm that there is no “good” way to organise these cuts. Our demand is to reverse all the funding cuts, and then go further, boosting funding in order to expand provision instead of cutting it. We will keep campaigning for properly-funded colleges, freely accessible to all, working together as a coherent public service instead of competing in a market, with decent financial support for students and well-paid, secure jobs for workers. And with a newly radical official opposition party in Corbyn’s Labour offering us the opportunity to think big, we aim to develop and fight for the vision of an integrated, democratic, cradle-to-grave National Education Service. To stand a chance, we urgently need to organise and build democratic, grassroots, militant unionisation of students and staff in colleges.


Stop the HE reforms!

Education Not MarketisationEnglish universities are currently facing the most far-reaching and potentially disastrous set of higher education (HE) reforms in decades. If the reforms go through, student debt will rise, our teachers will be put under even more pressure, and private companies will be given a free pass to take over from and profit from public universities driven to collapse.

The flagship proposal is the “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF). Government claims that this is about putting teaching on a par with research in universities. However, this hides the fact that none of the TEF metrics (student satisfaction, graduate employment and dropout rates) directly measure teaching quality. They also tell us little about how teaching could be improved.

It also hides the fact that the imbalance between research and teaching has been driven by the aggressively-implemented Research Excellence Framework (REF), which has placed extreme levels of stress on academics. Both REF and TEF should be abandoned.

TEF is really about fees. Universities that perform well on TEF will be given the power to raise fees in line with (and in the near future, above) inflation. Universities that rank low on TEF will see their budgets continue to stagnate, as they are forced to keep their fees at £9,000 while inflation and costs rise. Without extra funding from government, university bosses will cut corners, slash wages, and close courses.

The Home Office have also made veiled threats towards international students. “Poorly performing” universities may have their international student numbers capped. These reforms will put universities like London Met on the brink of collapse.

Private companies will be given a free pass to capitalise on the closure of public universities like London Met. This is a continuation of reforms since 2012, when private providers were given access to the same, tax-payer subsidised, funding as public universities. These private providers offered courses with unacceptably high drop-out rates; thousands of young people, exploited for profit, had their dreams dashed. Millions of pounds of public money was wasted. Now the government want to relax regulations on these profiteers.

The HE reforms are deeply undemocratic. They will continue to shut students out of major decisions about higher education, instead favouring the input of businesses. Government have proposed a new “Office for Students”, which will have significant power in overseeing funding and university accreditation. With breath-taking hubris they have announced there will be no student representation.

We oppose these reforms outright. As government is taking a sledgehammer to public higher education, so we must take a sledgehammer to their reforms.

We want an education system free from fees and debt, accessible to everyone, and democratically controlled by students and education workers. In short, we want education for human flourishing.


Money doesn’t grow on trees: tax the rich and nationalise the banks!

People in the crowd hold up posters 'Free Education - Tax the Rich' at the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts rally in Trafalgar Square.

Free, decently-funded education, grants, and paying education workers good wages, won’t come cheap. And as right-wingers like to remind us, money doesn’t grow on trees! We don’t want to increase the burden on ordinary people already struggling to pay the rent. So how are we going to pay for all this?

We’re told our society is short on cash. But this is a lie. Our society is extremely rich, but grossly unequal. The average FTSE 100 CEO’s income is 160 times that of the average worker. Half the world’s wealth lies in the hands of 1% of the population. And it was the rest of us, working for them every day, who generated that wealth.

Let’s put some of it to better use. We can fund free education by imposing serious redistributive taxes on the incomes, assets and businesses of the rich.

But this will only scratch the surface. If we’re serious about building a cradle-to-grave National Education Service – and creating an accountable economy, serving people not profit, with decent jobs, homes and healthcare for everyone – then we need to put the banks under democratic control.

The basic purpose of a banking system is to hold money while its owners aren’t using it and put it to work in the economy through investment and lending. So it has immense power to shape the economy through investment decisions – and, through short-termist profit-driven decisions, to plunge the rest of us into financial crises – while also providing personal services like savings accounts and mortgages.

Just like railways, healthcare or education, there’s no good reason why something so essential and powerful should be run according to what maximises private owners’ profits, instead of for social good. Especially after we funded a £850 billion bail-out! By taking these immense reserves of wealth and economic power into the hands of the many, we can choose democratically to invest in developing public services like Corbyn’s National Education Service, and in creating jobs and homes. We can orchestrate converting a climate-destroying fossil fuel economy into a sustainable infrastructure for the future. In short, we’ll have the tools needed to fundamentally transform society for the better.

NCAFC responds to the attempt to undermine the NSS boycott

PRESS RELEASE: NUS TO BALLOT MEMBERS ON RISK ASSESSING BOYCOTT

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: 07895405312, 07584092431, 07901844980

EDUCATION NOT MARKETISATIONThe National Union of Students (NUS) announced on Friday that it will ballot all members on whether to publish a risk assessment and an equality impact assessment of the proposed boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS).

All members will be asked, “Should NUS conduct and publish a risk assessment and equality impact assessment before finalising the NSS boycott / sabotage action?” The ballot was demanded by officers at 35 students’ unions.

In April, student delegates to NUS National Conference voted to boycott the National Student Survey until government scrap the proposed higher education (HE) reforms. By refusing to fill in the survey, students will disrupt government’s flagship proposal, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), along with other key market mechanisms. The motion passed at NUS National Conference stated that, “The HE reforms currently being considered by the government represent a fundamental attack on the idea of education as a public service. It is a blueprint for the marketisation of the sector, introducing private providers and variable fees, and orientating the whole sector towards the needs of employers.”

The HE reforms include plans to raise tuition fees and encourage private companies to set up universities. The White Paper on Higher Education also claimed that government has no duty to prevent the closure of public universities. Josh Berlyne, a Sheffield University student, said, “Calling a national ballot to risk assess a boycott? It’s ludicrous. Public education is in crisis right now, and these people are worried about students not filling in a survey. Students and academics are crying out to stop the HE reforms—2,300 at Sheffield University signed an open letter saying so. And while all this is going on, there are students’ union officers who want to slow down the only serious proposal to stop these reforms.”

Sahaya James, student at University of the Arts and NUS National Executive Council member, said, “On one level, calling for a risk assessment of the boycott is laughable. But it’s also insulting. Risk assessments exist to prevent deaths and serious injuries at work. They’re not meant to be used as an underhand tactic to prevent unions from taking effective action. It’s a joke and a disgrace.”

More information on the ballot can be found here: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/groups/shape-our-work/articles/chief-returning-officer-opens-national-ballot

Solidarity with the West Papuan struggle

free west papuaNCAFC expresses solidarity with the people and students of West Papua, who have struggled for liberation, human rights and freedom since their land was invaded by Indonesia in 1962.

As the Dutch pulled out of the region, Indonesia’s international allies – Australia, Britain and the US – assisted Indonesia militarily, economically and diplomatically as it created a military occupation and police state in Papua. The 1969 Act of Free Choice was a sham vote in which 1,022 Papuan tribal leaders were hand-picked by the Indonesian army and threatened, bribed and cajoled into voting in favour of incorporation into Indonesia. The Western powers were well aware of the undemocratic nature of the proceedings, yet gave Indonesia a wink and a nudge and voted to legitimate its rule at the UN. Military equipment, police training and public diplomatic support have ensued ever since.

Although international media and NGOs are banned from entering by Indonesia, we know that over 100,000 indigenous Papuans have been killed, torture is routine, and even raising the West Papuan national flag can land you with 15 years in jail. Several scholars have studied whether the situation meets the criteria for a genocide. In the urban areas Papuan students often lead the struggle for human rights, self-determination and dignity, and they have our full support. Britain should cease training Indonesian ‘counter-terrorism’ units like Detachment 88 that are implicated in massacres and torture, halt all arms supplies, and follow Jeremy Corbyn’s lead in calling for a referendum on independence, supervised by international observers.

Following a historic meeting in Westminster in May and the release of a report on the conflict by the University of Warwick, thousands of Papuans have been rounded up and arrested during mass mobilisations. The global media has been silent on the issue. We support the efforts of the Oxford-based Free West Papua Campaign in sounding the alarm and working to stop Western support for Indonesian rule.

Papua merdeka!

Model motion: Sabotage the NSS!

The government’s Higher Education White Paper, Success As A Knowledge Economy, proposes reforms which, if implemented, will pave the way for the end of public higher education as we know it.  Higher, variable fees will be introduced; private providers will be given help into the market as public universities are allowed to collapse; and “teaching excellence” will be measured on the basis of “student satisfaction” and the kinds of jobs graduates go into–rather than good quality teaching.  NUS is organising a national sabotage of the National Student Survey as part of a strategy to resist these reforms.  Get your SU to organise a local sabotage of the NSS by passing this motion at your SU Council!

 

SU notes

  1. The government’s May 2016 White Paper outlined extensive reforms to higher education.
  2. The flagship reform, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), will rely on data from the National Student Survey (NSS) and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey.
  3. Institutions which score highly in the TEF will be able to raise fees in line with inflation from 2017-19, followed by even higher level fees in 2019-20. (1)
  4. NUS is mandated to organise a national boycott or sabotage of NSS and DLHE as part of a strategy against the reforms.

 

SU believes

  1. The reforms fundamentally attack the idea of education as a public service.
  2. There are many reasons to oppose NSS, e.g. that it systematically discriminates against BME academics. (2)
  3. Sabotaging NSS and DLHE will disrupt the introduction of TEF, giving us leverage.
  4. A local-organised boycott/sabotage should only be done as part of a national boycott/sabotage organised by NUS.

 

SU resolves

  1. To organise a boycott/sabotage of NSS and DLHE, including:
    1. Refusing to promote NSS or have any pro-NSS material with the SU logo on;
    2. In term one 2016 running a campaign collecting pledges from finalists to boycott/sabotage the NSS;
    3. Working with UCU to discourage NSS promotion by academics and encourage academics to actively promote the sabotage instead;
    4. Promoting the sabotage through posters, leafleting, door-knocking and social media especially when the survey is released;
    5. Taking part in national actions and demonstrations linked to the NSS boycott/sabotage.
  2. To work with the University and UCU to create a local, non-metric-focused alternative to NSS to assess and thereby improve students’ learning experiences.

 

(1) https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/higher-education-white-paper-key-points-glance

(2) https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/biased-students-give-bme-academics-lower-nss-scores-says-study

Support education workers on strike for #FairPayInHE

fair payThis week, the UCU trade union (representing academic and related workers, including many students who teach as postgrads) announced the opening of industrial action in their campaign for fairer pay in higher education. They will be on strike in universities 25-26 May, and at the same time beginning to work to contract, which means they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues. If the situation does not improve, they are planning further strikes and a marking boycott.

They are fighting to reverse pay cuts that have seen their real-terms income slashed by 14.5% since 2009, to close the gender pay gap that sees women systematically paid less, and to push back against the casualization of work in higher education and ensure that casualised staff – like hourly-paid postgrad teaching assistants – are paid equally and in full for their work.

We totally support these demands, and extend our solidarity to staff as they take industrial action to win them. Not only do they deserve better, the unjust treatment of education workers affects students too and damages education. We know that short-term disruption to education as a result of industrial action is worth it to prevent the long-term damage threatened and to push back against the injustices staff face – and we note that the action can be called off as soon as our university managers agree to the demands.

In particular, we would like to extend our support to those workers campaigning to push the often-under-prioritised issues of the gender pay gap and casualisation into the foreground of the dispute, such as the activists of Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (many of whom are students themselves, working as postgraduate teachers).

What can I do?

NCAFC will be organising to support the campaign – keep your eyes peeled for further info. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Sign the petition and share it. This is a simple way to add to the pressure on university managers and show them that students support our staff and we won’t be divided. Sharing the petition is also an easy way to spread awareness of the campaign. You can find the petition here.
  • Reach out to your university’s UCU branch. Let them know you support them, and ask them what you can do together to build the campaign. Maybe you could co-organise a protest or a rally on campus?
  • Build the trade union. If you are a postgrad teacher, join UCU and join the industrial action (and if you’re a postgrad but not teaching right now, you can get involved in the union as a student member for free). And support recruitment drives to get postgrads into the union.
  • Get your student union to support the campaign. Find out what your student union is saying and doing about the campaign. If they’re not already supporting fair pay and the industrial action, call on your SU officers to show solidarity, and if you can, propose a motion for a vote at an SU meeting.
  • Get creative. Think about stunts and direct action to increase the pressure! And ways you can reach other students with information and convince them to back the campaign, from posters all over campus, to social media, to reaching out to clubs and societies.
  • Join the picket lines. On strike days, trade unionists will set up picket lines at entrances to your university – don’t cross these lines, but instead offer them support and help out.

Boycott the 2017 National Student Survey to stop the higher education reforms!

Boycott the NSS to stop the HE reformsThis NUS conference, we are putting forward a motion to boycott or sabotage next year’s National Student Survey (NSS) and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Survey (DLHE).These surveys are bad in themselves: they’re used as a weapon to beat academic staff with and as an excuse to restructure departments. Student satisfaction ratings like these are also racially-biased and gendered, so that women and black academics score lower, and they are essential to maintaining a market in education which pits us all against each other.

There is a good case for not participating in these surveys regardless of any other factors, but in this instance we want to use the importance of these surveys to HE bosses as leverage to defeat the current reforms which represent an attack to education as a public service. We are proposing that NUS will mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the NSS and DLHE if the HE reforms and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are not withdrawn and we need your help in getting the NUS to do this.

What are the HE reforms and the TEF?

The HE reforms were outlined in the Higher Education Green Paper of November last year. They contain proposals to further marketise higher education, which will make it easier for for-profit private provider to enter the market, for fees to be increased, for universities to shut down and for business to dictate what we learn. A core component of these reforms is the TEF. It will use statistics from the NSS and the DHLE, as well as other data, to supposedly measure the quality of teaching. This means that good teaching will be at least partly defined by the extent to which it increases the value of our work to employers and big business. Scoring well in the TEF would also allow universities to put up their fees, increasing the cost of education and creating further competition in a tiered system between different universities. If these proposals go through, they will radically transform our education for the worse.

Why boycott/sabotage the NSS and DHLE as a strategy?

In order for the TEF to function as intended, students have to participate in both of these surveys. These surveys are also used in other league tables and calculations which those who wish to create a market in the HE sector are dependent upon. If students, en masse, either refused to fill in the surveys at all or sabotaged it by giving artificially maximum or minimum scores, the results would become of little use and would wreck plans for the TEF, having a knock-on impact on other HE reforms and causing havoc with other procedures already in place to manage and marketise the sector. This should act as a major disincentive for the government to go through with their agenda.

How would it work?

If this motion passes, the Vice President Higher Education, in consultation with National Executive Committee and education workers who are affected by the TEF, would carry out research and devise the most effective boycott/sabotage strategy. In June, NUS will write to the government and announce that the NUS will mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the NSS and DLHE if the HE reforms and the TEF are not withdrawn. If the government refuses to withdraw the HE reforms, the NUS will work to mobilise students to sabotage or boycott the Spring 2017 NSS, and the next year’s DLHE. The campaign should begin at the start of Autumn Term 2016 collecting pledges from students that they will carry out the action if the HE reforms are not withdrawn.

How can you help?

If we’re going to get enough students to participate in the boycott/sabotage to make it effective, we need this motion to pass at NUS National Conference. It’s already been successful at NUS Postgraduate Conference and NUS LGBT+ Conference, and we know with enough work we can get it to pass nationally as well. Lobby your delegates to vote in favour of it or take a motion to your SU council to mandate them to vote for it. Share information about this campaign and look out for upcoming actions to get involved with. If you’re coming to NUS Conference, get in contact with us and let us know that you’re up for campaigning there. Email [email protected]

To spread the word, please click attending, invite and share this facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1723705774533592/

The motion itself can found in this document, listed under 201b: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/nusdigital/document/documents/23606/CD10_Final_Proposals_Motions_-_20160322_v3.pdf

Government wants retrospective repayment hike on undergrad & FE loans – admits £9k fee system is unsustainable

UCL Defend Education blocks MP Vince Cable's offices with red boxes representing debt, during the campaign against loan privatisation which also threatened to hike up repayments

UCL Defend Education blocks MP Vince Cable’s offices with red boxes representing debt, during the campaign against loan privatisation which also threatened to hike up repayments

Ben Towse, NUS Postgraduate Committee

After years of denial and dismissal, the government has quietly admitted that the fee and loan system it introduced for undergrads starting in 2012 in the face of the mass protests of 2010, and later extended to further education (FE) students over 23, is “unaffordable in the long term”. Our protests and criticisms, derided at the time, have been vindicated, but it is a bittersweet victory. Repayments on the loans are lower than initially expected, because the repayments are determined by income, and too many graduates will be on low incomes because of the Tories’ low-wage austerity economy. Now the government wants to reduce the national debt further. So instead of going for those who can afford it – by taxing the rich and businesses – they propose to gouge billions of pounds out of students and graduates, by increasing repayments on all post-2012 loans, changing the terms students signed up to when they started their courses.

Changing the repayment threshold

The policy was buried in the recent Budget, and three days ago the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) opened a consultation. When the post-2012 loans were introduced, repayments were to taken from income over £21,000, to protect lower-waged graduates. In order to keep that threshold the same in real terms, from 2016 it was promised to rise in step with average incomes. The Tories now propose to freeze that threshold at £21k until at least 2021 – so as inflation and living costs rise, the threshold will fall in real terms, meaning repayments are increased, and lower-waged graduates who would not have expected to make repayments will now have to.

The second, less preferred option presented is to freeze the repayment threshold in a similar way, but only for new borrowers – i.e. students starting in 2016 and later. The government does not like this option because it will make it less money and that money will only come in from 2020 onwards, failing to contribute to their political target of paying off debt during this Parliament. Maintaining the system the Tories introduced just 3 years ago, and not changing the repayment terms for anyone, is barely considered an option in the consultation – it is described as “unaffordable”.

Raiding the pockets of lower- and middle-income graduates

What will the impact of these retrospective repayment hikes be? Andrew McGettigan says about 2 million borrowers will be affected. The government projects that graduates on starting salaries of £21,000 to £30,000 would repay an additional £6,100 each over the lifetime of their debt before the remainder is written off at the 30-year mark. Graduates starting at £40k, who would previously have expected to pay off virtually their entire debt before the 30-year mark, will repay just £300 more under the new system. And those lucky few starting on £50k will actually pay slightly less in total under the new system than the old one, as the increased repayments will ensure they pay off their debt sooner, before interest accumulates! So this policy directly raids the pockets of middle and lower earners, leaving the better-off largely unaffected or even richer.

The government expects to make £3.2 billion in extra repayments from existing undergrad borrowers, and an unspecified additional amount from future students. By comparison, they will make just £35 million out of existing FE borrowers, in part because these students will be repaying out of lower salaries. FE loans seem to be included in these changes not because the government has considered a case for doing so, but because it would be bureaucratically too difficult to separate them out of the undergrad-focussed loan system they were bundled into in 2013. The consultation gives almost zero attention to the effects on further education.

Crossing a line

This is not only an injustice in terms of the regressive gouging of even more cash out of graduates. Crossing this line, showing the government is willing to retrospectively alter the terms of repayment, and setting the precedent that student debt holders are a piggy bank that can be raided any time the state needs some spare cash, could have a grave effect on prospective students’ willingness to take on debt and enter university or post-23 FE study. When introducing this system, the government made much of how prospective students need not worry about taking on debt, as it would only be paid off “when they could afford it”. How are students, particularly those without the safety net of wealthy and supportive families, supposed to be encouraged to take up study and get into debt if the repayment terms can change at any time on the whim of the government? The effect on widening access could be grave.

So too could the effect on choice of courses. If the government can change repayments at any time, the pressure is on to get high-paying jobs that will pay off more debt faster, before the next government policy swerve. Why risk delaying repayments? Students will be pushed even harder to abandon academic exploration and focus only on the subjects that will net us the most lucrative jobs.

We have to stop this – and we can

The student movement must fight the threat of both retrospective and future changes to increase repayments. We will defend current students and graduates, but we won’t sell future students down the river either. Instead, all increases must be stopped, and then fees, loans and existing debt should be scrapped and replaced with free education and living grants for everyone in further and higher education. The government should tax those who can afford it instead of raiding us to bail out their economic problems.

It will not be enough for NUS and student unions to write polite responses to this consultation and wait for the government to respond. We need to kick off serious action, including protest and direct action, and we need to do so as soon as possible. The NCAFC National Committee is holding a meeting open to NCAFC members next week to discuss stopping the maintenance grant cuts, and this issue will be on the agenda too. Join us to plan the fightback.

Fight job cuts at Aberdeen University!

Aberdeen student left bannerBy Dexter Govan, Aberdeen Defend Education Campaign

There’s trouble brewing in the north east of Scotland. As Aberdeen faces an oil crisis that’s led to thousands of redundancies, the University of Aberdeen is hoping to add to that number. For those that haven’t made the the 186 mile trip north of the Tweed, the University of Aberdeen is one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world. Founded in 1495, it went on to play a critical role in the development of the Scottish Enlightenment. A proud legacy the current management appear determined to ruin.

The philosophical school of Scottish Common Sense owes much to the University of Aberdeen, and it is a dire shame that our principal Sir Ian Diamond (of the Welsh Diamond review) appears so bereft of it. Due to what may be described kindly as appalling mismanagement or accurately as a zealous commitment to enforce austerity thinking onto the HE sector, the University of Aberdeen has decided to make ‘savings’ of £10.5 million in staffing. By their own calculations this translates directly into 150 redundancies. What is absolutely unacceptable is any suggestion by university management that this will not affect the coveted ‘Student Experience’ at Aberdeen.

The axe will fall on teaching staff. It will be our tutors, our lectures, our university community that will be hit like broadside by these vicious, vindictive cuts. And the sickening but predictable irony of it all, is that it will be imposed on us by a management team who take home six figure salaries and a principal who earns over £300,000 a year.

So as students we must fight these job cuts, which will mean not only the destruction of peoples livelihoods, but will leave a gaping wound in our community. Voluntary redundancies will make up some of the cuts, but many more will be compulsory. Originally planned for July, the University and College Union have negotiated a temporary reprieve from the bloody cleaver of the ‘New Strategic Plan’. Many of the university managers may see this a success on their part. After all, delaying any compulsory redundancies until November gives them more time to bully staff into accepting voluntary redundancy. However, this delay is in fact a victory for the union. It’s a victory because it pushes direct strike action into term time. It’s a victory because it means students will return to our campus. It’s a victory because as students we will stand with staff and grind this ancient institution to a halt.

Of course the management team at the university will attempt to play students off against staff. Students will get emails saying that the management are committed to our education, and hope that we aren’t alarmed by staff out on picket lines defending their livelihoods. We will be more than alarmed, we will be incensed that behind this patronising rhetoric is the power to end this dispute. There is no giant hole in the finances of the university. Instead management see an opportunity to maximise profits. Our loyalty as students isn’t to any vice-principal, it’s to the over-worked teaching staff in our university community. It is an indicator of the severity of the situation that before the reprieve, UCU Aberdeen balloted for strike action – it passed overwhelmingly. It will surely pass again when voluntary redundancies fail in November. Before then we can’t afford to remain idle, as students and staff we must stand united and ensure that every student on our campus knows about the callous actions of our institution. We must ensure that we mobilise our community to fight the cuts and reject the rapid decline of our university teaching. Come November our community of students and workers will show that the university does not exist without us, and that a threat to one is a threat to all. We hope that others across the country will support us in this struggle.

The “Teaching Excellence Framework”: exploiting staff, raising fees and marketising education

Tory Minister for Universities & Science, Jo Johnson

Tory Minister for Universities & Science, Jo Johnson

James Elliott, NUS NEC Disabled Students’ Rep & NCAFC Disabled co-rep

Usually when governments say that something, whether students, quality, or access is ‘at the heart of the system’, that is when the student movement needs to pay close attention. Recent statements by the new Universities Minister Jo Johnson and the 2015 budget from George Osborne have confirmed this – we are not ‘at the heart of the system’, but capital definitely is.

Following in the footsteps of David Willetts’ Higher Education White Paper “students at the heart of the system”, new Tory Universities Minister Jo Johnson has announced “teaching at the heart of the system” – which seems to mean a further round of teaching casualisation, institutional funding linked directly to graduate earnings, and even higher tuition fees.

What Jo Johnson proposed is to introduce a new ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) to parallel the ‘Research Excellence Framework’, which uses a set of metrics to rank universities every five years and award them funding based on the results. This will include ‘outcome-focused’ metrics, and Johnson’s original speech included the phrase, “clear financial and reputational incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.”

Johnson was asked by the London South Bank Vice-Chancellor if this was to be “linked to pricing of courses”, which he evaded and refused to rule out. In the Commons, Johnson was asked by Labour MPs, including the former Blairite President of NUS Wes Streeting, to rule out a fee rise and refused. Then this week, in his budget, George Osborne announced fees would be able to rise in line with inflation at institutions with measures that, “include allowing institutions offering high teaching quality to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with a consultation on the mechanisms to do this.”

What does this ‘TEF’ mean?

The Times Higher Education’s John Morgan has analysed what this might mean, predicting that once the Conservatives have passed “English Votes for English Laws”, they may be in a better position to get a rise in fees for English universities through Parliament, and then those that do well in the TEF may be allowed to raise fees.

This will be set out in an autumn Green Paper, usually a precursor to legislation – and an Act of Parliament could be a sign that the TEF will be linked to a fee hike, or at least a variation in the cap. I explained how this might work for NCAFC this week.

The TEF has ramifications beyond just tuition fees, however, and is another logical step in the marketisation of higher education. The ‘outcome-focused’ metrics are likely to measure things such as graduate salaries which clearly have nothing to do with the quality of one’s education. This will hugely disfavour teaching staff who train students who go into low-paid public sector work, like becoming the next generation of casualised academic workers. It will also fail to take into account that people with higher-earning parents will go into higher-paying graduate jobs, not necessarily through good teaching but through personal contacts or early advantages in life.

What is the Research Excellence Framework, and what is wrong with it?

The Teaching Excellence Framework follows in the footsteps of the Research Excellence Framework. Described by Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, as “a Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices”, where, “universities’ main objective is to achieve better REF grades, not to produce excellent science and scholarship”. The REF is the governments method of allocating research funding to institutions. For 2014, 1,100 academics graded 191,232 research outputs submitted to REF, where sometimes just one assessor will grade your research. The system is erratic, and unpredictable, and could see departments closing from a loss in funding. In one half-joking Guardian piece advising academics how to do well in the REF, they are told, “Don’t write a book or extended monograph: the REF makes no distinction between research outputs, so there is no incentive to undertake long-term projects. Also don’t bother with risky, visionary or imaginative projects unless you can be absolutely certain that you will get a publication out of it. No publication means no impact.”

Sound like the sort of thing that university teaching could do with? No, us neither.

What did Jo Johnson actually say?

Let’s take a closer look at what Johnson actually said. He claimed his focus will be on three key manifesto pledges, which are lifting the cap on student numbers, delivering the TEF, and finally, “driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system”. Johnson says he plans to, “assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Education (DfE) education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits data.”

This will likely mean that the outcome-focused metrics are all about graduate earnings and employment. A ‘good teacher’ is no longer someone who enriches your understanding of a subject, or enhances your critical thinking, they are now a glorified careers service – and their success will be measured by your paycheque.

Johnson also talked up the National Student Survey (NSS), a continued irritant for education workers who are pitted against one another in a quantitative survey. These kinds of metrics hurt workers in education, facilitating their exploitation, as quality of education is not something that can be polled, quantitatively measured or bottled up and weighed. These bogus metrics are then used to justify redundancies, funding cuts, and drive workers to striver harder and harder to ‘outperform’ their colleagues, fostering antipathy and a competitive spirit among staff that divides them.

What is particularly damaging is the repeated references to the Competitive Markets Authority, and polls conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which seem to indicate students are increasingly thinking of themselves as consumers buying a product – and that their teachers must be graded on their ‘customer service’.

Unsurprisingly for such an ardent Thatcherite, Johnson notes, “competition will also be central to our efforts to drive up standards”, a continuation of a policy which has seen almost half of academics pressured into giving higher grades and struggle with unmanageable workloads.

While paying lip service to the notion that, “education is about more than just wage returns”, Johnson went quickly back on course by reminding students that, “it is also important to remember that higher lifetime graduate earnings provide benefits to society – including higher tax revenues and faster and fuller repayment of student loans.” Johnson has redefined ‘education as a public good’ to mean ‘work hard for the bosses and pay off your debts’.

There are further references to making sure higher education matches the needs of big business, including the very explicit statement that, “we are not yet rising to the challenge of ensuring that enough young people are choosing courses where there are skills shortages and strong employer demand”. While this technocratic, business-led approach to higher education is not dissimilar from what Labour were offering before the general election, Johnson may outline in more detail what this means in his Autumn Green Paper.

Then comes the final explanation of what his ‘TEF’ will look like. In a mission to “drive up standards in teaching”, Johnson will, “stimulate a diverse HE market and provide students with the information they need to judge teaching quality”. This explicit marketisation will give students indicators of which course suits them best, to be provided by his TEF. In neoclassical market economics, ‘pricing signals’, are required to indicate a product’s worth. Demand goes up, so does the price. Given this (unexpectedly, and probably deliberately) failed in higher education with so many institutions charging £9,000 straightaway, there is of course nothing to differentiate between – except for things the government wouldn’t imagine we would value, such as the course content, who’s teaching, the location and any number of other, non-monetary factors. Part of Johnson’s justification for the ‘TEF’ thus appears to be that it will help you, as future students, pick your course. Kind of like a Which? for HE, but where the poor performers face job cuts and closures.

Reassuringly and honestly, Johnson finishes by reminding us that this TEF, “goes with the grain of our reforms since 2010 and aims to accelerate positive changes already underway in the sector.”

Most worryingly, Johnson then talks about ‘incentives’, and says that they will be published in the Green paper in the autumn. What better way to make potential applicants aware of what the best institutions are than by allowing those universities to ‘price’ themselves somewhere above the current £9,000 cap? And what better way to reward such ‘teaching excellence’ than to allow those (likely already very rich) institutions to bring in more cash though higher fees? It’s a win-win for the bosses, and a lose-lose for students who pay more and the staff who are pressurised.

What are the politics behind this?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which universities sits under, is in financial trouble. They have to make the same austerity commitments as other departments, and in 2010 that meant replacing all the lost funding from central government (the grant for humanities teaching was all but abolished) by trebling fees. Higher fees, and the move by almost all universities to charge the maximum, has meant that huge amounts of public money are having to be loaned out to an increasing number of students – 45% of which is expected to not get paid back. This has created a huge strain, and led to the move to sell-off student loans.

BIS are now being asked to find another £450m of cuts from somewhere, hence Osborne’s cuts to maintenance grants, and making universities rather than the state responsible for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from 2016/17.

Now in order to provide some relief to the Vice-Chancellors and the sector, Johnson is throwing them the promise of some extra cash (in the form of higher fees) if they jump through the hoops in his new TEF. If institutions offer the right courses for business (in other words, fund science at the expense of the humanities), and students play ball by looking to pay off their enormous debts, then everyone at the institution will win the reward of a tuition fee hike.

How does the student movement fight back?

We need to start fighting now against the potential threats, not wait until the government explains things in more detail, by which time it will be too late. This has always been a failure of the student movement and often the NUS, in playing the waiting game and merely ‘consulting’, when it should be protesting and picketing. We need to get the word out quickly that this is bad news, and defeat the Green Paper before it is even published. That means mobilisation, linking students’ unions up with UCU branches, and building for the national demonstration in November.

We must present our alternative which is democratic control of teaching, in the interests of students, communities but also teachers and workers themselves. When the government consult, we must simply tell them they are wrong as loudly as possible, not try and get a seat at the table.

There may well be attempts to integrate students’ unions and the NUS into the process of drawing up this system, and running it, in order to give a sheen of legitimacy and make ‘students as consumers’ feel ‘empowered’ by the TEF, like we are finally getting our ‘value for money’ by reviewing our teachers. We should be totally opposed to this.  The fundamental basis of these policies is anathema to us – they can’t be fixed so they must be smashed – and the stance of the student movement should be no collaboration. Just as UCU is advising its branches to not comply with the Islamophobic Prevent programme (which is also the Conference policy of the NUS), our SUs should not contribute to the implementation or governance of this system except to say it should be stopped outright, that we reject markets in education, and that we will not be tricked into thinking these policies empower students.

“Students and workers, unite and fight” is not just a slogan, but a principle. The government that is going to raise our fees and cut our grants is not only the same that is cutting staff pay and introducing metrics to discipline the workforce – but these policies are inextricably linked. We must fight them both, together.