Marketisation Must Be Abolished, Not Adjusted

By NCAFC National Committee member Dan Davison.


On Monday 19 February, Theresa May launched the latest funding review for higher education. Acknowledging that the UK now has ‘one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world’, May put forward that the review would ‘examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed’. Such promises follow Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ suggestions last Sunday that students might be charged variable tuition fees according to their specific degree’s economic value. Indeed, the themes of ‘meritocracy’ and greater ‘value for money’ infused May’s speech, which floated such options as adjusting the repayment period for graduates and bringing back maintenance grants, but excluded abolishing fees altogether.

These shifts in position from Government figures almost certainly reflect pressures brought first by the student movement in the wake of the 2010 anti-cuts protests and later by the Corbyn-led Labour Party, which has committed to abolishing fees, reintroducing grants, and setting up a new National Education Service to allow people to access education throughout their lives. Nevertheless, such concessions from the Conservatives mean little without directly tackling the underlying problem of marketization. In other words, such tinkering around the edges of tuition costs and debt repayment not only comes across as a ‘too little, too late’ gambit after years of slashed funds, course closures, and fee hikes, but also explicitly reinforces the very education-as-commodity logic that gave ideological cover to this systematic gutting of the sector.

This is perhaps most obvious from the suggestion that tuition fees be varied by the subject’s economic value. Education is far more than a financial investment in one’s future: it provides a substantial benefit to society as a whole by fostering skills and knowledge, as well as individual fulfilment by allowing people to seek new personal and intellectual horizons. One cannot reduce this worth to a price tag based on whether the private sector happens to consider a given skill or field of knowledge vital for its internal operations. Whilst many students’ experience of the current system may well be a monotonous grind to gain a set of numbers on a sheet of paper that will hopefully find them a job, the only manner in which we can break people free from such a life-sapping existence is by radically altering the way we have come to conceptualise education itself. It calls for us to be able to see and treat education the way we see and treat healthcare: as a public good that everyone is entitled to access, supported by the redistribution of wealth. This is why I advocate a free education system based on taxing the very richest so that anyone can go to university, as opposed to treating those who complete their degrees as obligated to give back money through student loan repayments or a ‘graduate tax’ for the ‘privilege’ of receiving a special service.

We most clearly see the spectre of marketization lingering above the funding review when we consider it alongside the ongoing industrial action by education workers organised in the University and College Union (UCU) to defend their pensions. On 22 February, a wave of pickets hit 61 universities, with a further 13 strike dates to follow in an escalating pattern. These strikes are over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The proposed changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively spelling the end of guaranteed pension benefits. The significance of this dispute cannot be overstated. Academic staff are posed to lose up to 40% of their retirement income – which for the typical lecturer could amount to as much as £200,000 – and other pension schemes will almost certainly follow in USS’ wake. Put bluntly, if UCU loses the dispute, it would sound the death knell for financial security in retirement across the entire education sector.

The role of marketization in all this is simple: the reforms to USS are driven by the felt need to shift as much financial risk as possible from the universities to the individual workers, which in turn is driven by the felt need to make universities more attractive to commercial investors. In other words, senior management are cutting staff pensions in order to maximise profits. This means that student hardships, such as extortionate rents, rising fees, funding cuts, and overcrowded campuses, and staff hardships, such as the proliferation of casual employment contracts and the stripping of pension guarantees, are symptoms of the same underlying problem.

Indeed, there is a striking thematic parallel between the suggested differentiation of fees according to economic value and the infamous ‘excellence frameworks’, which outline artificial metrics for success in the education sector. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) ostensibly evaluates the impact of academic research, the newer Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) does likewise for teaching quality, and the recently proposed Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF) will purportedly ensure that knowledge produced by universities is put to good use. All these frameworks are deeply flawed. In the case of the REF and KEF, commercial interests largely determine whether produced scholarship is ‘impactful’ or ‘useful’. Moreover, the pressure on academics to keep churning out and submitting articles to keep their jobs or gain promotion perpetuates and deepens a ‘publish or perish’ culture amongst staff, to the detriment of well-being and research quality alike.

As for the TEF, its two major metrics are employment rates and graduate earnings on the one hand, and the National Student Survey (NSS) on the other. Even on their own terms, these are wholly unreliable metrics. After all, a student could very easily have the most skilful and understanding teachers imaginable, yet still struggle to find a well-paying job after graduation, whilst NSS results are basically junk data. More fundamentally, the TEF was established with the ultimate aim of allowing high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring universities, thereby making education even more hierarchical and commodified. This is why the National Union of Students (NUS) passed policy in 2016 to boycott the NSS until the higher education reforms are withdrawn, and why Students’ Unions and activist groups across the country are continuing the boycott this year. In short, like the pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute and the proposals in the higher education review, the ‘excellence frameworks’ demonstrate the grave effects of marketization upon staff and students alike.

Until and unless we overhaul the entire education system to prevent managers from running universities like businesses, May’s promises will continue to ring hollow. This is why the call for staff-student solidarity must fall upon receptive ears. This is the point at which the common struggle of students and workers on campus is most starkly apparent. Much of the sector has already withered in the malignant presence of marketization. Nevertheless, if staff and students realise how viewing education in terms of ‘value for money’ has led to the predicaments they face today, they can organise to fend off the latest wave of attacks upon education and to lay the foundations for a radically different system. Only by noticing their shared material interests can students and workers form the kind of solidarity needed to defend the education sector we have, and to bring forth the education sector that could be.