The annual congress of the University and College Union in Manchester meets at a crucial time for further and higher education in Britain...
When teachers and lecturers meet at the University and College Union Congress in Manchester in early June they face three major challenges: a government determined not to fund education; employers determined to compete against each other rather than act collaboratively against that government onslaught; and tensions within the union itself following recent changes to the National Executive Committee (NEC).
The UCU is currently the only organisation with a coherent policy for post-school education for the whole of the country, so the future of the union has a significant bearing on the future of the country.
Frightened of the public reaction but quoting “coalition harmony” as the reason, the much-trumpeted government plan for a higher education bill giving private firms more access to the university sector was not in the recent Queen’s Speech. Yet private companies continue to gain footholds without legislation, seen in news that a US multimedia company is making a bid to take over distance learning at the University of Leicester.
The abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance in colleges, tripling of university fees from this September (see news item) and the numbers cap on home students, all achieved without new legislation, are already having a significant impact. It is already known that the “cap” on home students was breached by 25,000 this year as applicants rushed to avoid the fees hike. The government is now handing down the fines for that “over recruitment”, with London Met alone facing a £6 million fine. Existing private providers are not subject to the cap and are allowed unlimited recruitment of taxpayer-backed students on courses specifically designated by business secretary Vince Cable.
When fees were introduced the country was told two enormous lies. One was that it would lead to an improved education for students and the second that this would improve public finances. Neither could be further from the truth.
A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has highlighted how few contact hours students have with their teachers and that in many prestigious universities that contact time is with teaching assistants such as doctoral students rather than with qualified teachers. So no promised improvement, rather a growth in student dissatisfaction. Likewise, the suggestion that a rise in student fees would help public debt has now been shown to be the exact opposite.
A recent announcement allowing universities to recruit uncapped numbers at the lower A-Level grade threshold of ABB (previously AAB) will in effect mean some universities will no longer be subject to the cap. It will largely affect, to their advantage, recruitment to the Russell Group universities. These are the institutions which have the highest rated research according to a controversial “Research Excellence Framework” known as ‘the REF’ to which all universities are subjected (a sort of Ofsted inspection except the main focus is universities’ research rather than teaching).
Competition for university places is highest at the Russell Group universities. Lowering the entry requirements in a way that will affect just this relatively small number of more financially secure universities – i.e., a “cap some but not others” policy– is a perfect recipe for competition among institutions and financial instability across the sector. It is also another block to those students wishing to move from FE to HE with their access qualifications because the universities which recruit them, that is, not Russell Group universities, will continue to have their numbers capped.
This “divide and rule” employers’ response to the lowest level of public funding for higher education in Europe is now compounding the damage done by government. Another maladaptive response is the massive increase in overseas recruitment by British univer-sities. It is the norm for at least 15 per cent of university students to come from outside the country, but for many institutions it is a much higher percentage. The sector as a whole is now relying on a third of its income from overseas fees – a recipe for instability.
The recent ballot result whereby the union decided to reduce the size of the National Executive Committee was a good decision as the NEC has been too big (see news item in this issue). What matters now is how the money saved is spent and whether the new NEC can offer leadership to members dealing with the rising attack on the FE and HE sectors.
Some delegates will want to use conference time to revisit that decision but members will not forgive that indulgence. Government plans for the sector are demonstrably increasing public debt and stifling the education and research that could rebuild the country. Every member has a huge job to expose the lies and ensure the quality of education. ■