Just when you would expect the people running British universities to be standing up for higher education for the young people of the country, voices are emerging calling British students “loss making” and urging a greater focus on foreign students…
A week before the University and College Union (UCU) met for their Annual Congress at Manchester (29 May to 1 June) Andrew Oswald, the Pro-Dean for Research at Warwick Business School, wrote about his vision for Higher Education in the Independent newspaper:
“UK parents would be advised to understand that in the future the particularly hard-up UK universities will rationally favour overseas students rather than their own loss-making offspring. If we stick with the current system, UK parents and students will be the losers. Our nation will have to live increasingly by its brain-power. Higher tuition fees are needed.”
Superficially there is one sentence which UCU members might agree with: the reference to “live increasingly by its brainpower”. But behind it is a vision for Britain which sees us as a country that no longer makes things and not a country that engages hand and brain in production. That notion condemns us to a balance of payments deficit and long-term instability.
The real question is what we need as a country from higher education – to educate the population or to make a profit?
It has been evident for some time that overseas students’ fees have contributed to keeping a range of courses afloat in British universities. Everyone knows that in the long term this is an unsustainable strategy as other countries develop their own education systems. But to describe our own population as “loss-making offspring” puts it bluntly, as if the brain-power of the young and their potential counts for nothing. It is an entirely short-term vision linked to the balance sheet of individual institutions. The concept of a nation investing in its future simply does not figure.
Fees: the search for alternatives
“In Place of Fees: Time for a Business Education Tax?” is a recent pamphlet produced by the Make Education Count campaign, published jointly by the UCU and Compass. In it, Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, states that, “Making it (higher education) achievable and affordable for all who would benefit is a policy challenge any civilised society must meet.”
To listen to politicians and a number of the Russell Group (“elite”) university spokespeople (see quote from Andrew Oswald in the main article) the only options for future funding on the table are to make students pay more. This would either be through hugely increased fees, confining university to the few who could afford it, or through a graduate tax, which assumes all graduates will increase their earning power by obtaining a degree.
This assumption is weak – some graduates may earn large salaries in the City or the law, but many earn much less in the public and other sectors, if indeed they manage to find work at all. A graduate tax would saddle many young people with high taxes when they are just starting out in their earning lives.
The pamphlet rejects both these options, calling instead for a tax on large businesses which depend on the supply of quality graduates but which at present contribute virtually nothing to producing them. It points out that corporation tax is relatively low in Britain, and even at present levels around £8 billion a year goes uncollected.
The pamphlet is a useful contribution to widening the debate on future funding.
Oswald, like the vice chancellors of many institutions, has only one answer to the current situation – increase fees. In other words, limit education to those who can afford it and exclude others regardless of their talent and potential.
Although Oswald’s article does not directly mention it, there is a growing trend which will exclude not only students but whole areas of thinking and human brain potential. Increasingly, institutions are closing some subject areas such as philosophy and focusing their provision in areas that attract higher-band funding. In previous articles by Oswald he has been keen to predict the development of the American system of academic pay, which sees a professor of computing earn about twice as much as a professor of music.
Save higher education
Who is going to defend higher education? On a strategic level, the UCU has been active. At the Browne Review into university funding, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said that Tory plans to bring corporation tax down to the lowest in the G20 countries were not only a missed opportunity to bring in much-needed funds for higher education, but also proof that their talk of the country being “in it together” was hollow.
Putting the UCU’s case for business to pay more tax (see Box, left) and therefore fulfill part of the Dearing report’s recommendations that business, the state and student share the bill for university funding, she said, “Starving education of funds and making families pay more to access a university education, while authorising billions in tax giveaways to big business will be a disaster for the UK. We need a highly-skilled workforce that can compete in the high-knowledge global economy.”
Such thinking contrasts with that of Oswald and other senior university figures merely fighting to keep afloat a series of individual businesses, that happen to be called universities. It is at least a start.
Just a few weeks ago the UCU predicted that 3,083 jobs in further education could be at risk. Now, after its new survey of all the English regions, the prediction has increased to 4,300 – and this relates to just 63 colleges, around a fifth of the total.
The UCU warned that government funding cuts to higher education could lead to universities facing “financial meltdown” after it was revealed that the University of Cumbria came close to not paying its staff wages in March. The university, which is nearly £30 million in debt, is looking to make 200 staff redundant and has announced plans to close its Ambleside campus.
The higher education sector is facing cuts of over £900 million in the next three years, and 30 institutions could be forced to close. The UCU estimates that more than 14,000 university jobs could be at risk and warned that students will face larger class sizes and substantial cuts to courses.
The union pointed out that while Germany, France and the USA had all put more funds into higher education as part of their recovery programmes, government cuts here put at risk Britain’s chances of recovery. Meanwhile, its members have been fighting.
UCU members at Bradford College delivered a solid strike on 12 May as part of their dispute over plans to make 18 teaching staff redundant, axe courses in counselling, metallurgy and music techn-ology, and cut provision in basic literacy. Pickets were out at all the main college buildings across Bradford including Westbrook, The Old Building, MacMillan and Bolton Royd, supported by students and other staff. At Bolton Royd students joined the picket line in the evening.
Protesting against the proposed closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University.|
UCU members at four of the largest colleges in the West Midlands – City College Wolverhampton, South Birmingham College, Birmingham Metropolitan College and City College Birmingham – have voted overwhelmingly to ballot for strike action unless the threat of compulsory redundancies is lifted.
If Sussex University management persists in refusing to rule out compulsory redundancies, UCU members there will call for industrial action and protests aimed at causing maximum disruption to the examination process.
The UCU said it fully supported the members of National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) involved in the SATs boycott. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said, “We wholeheartedly support the action being taken by NAHT and NUT members. As victims of league table culture ourselves, we fully understand their frustrations and anger at league tables and the obsession of stripping everything down to statistics…SATs do little other than disrupt children’s education and create misleading league tables.”
Industrial action at Glasgow University looks increasingly likely after UCU members packed an emergency meeting on 19 May and overwhelmingly backed calls for a strike ballot if the university did not immediately withdraw the threat of compulsory redundancies. The university has targeted over 80 job losses in the Archaeology, Biomedical & Life Sciences and Education departments. Glasgow UCU President Dave Anderson said, “The support for industrial action against targeted redundancies was overwhelming with a huge turnout. The university must now immediately withdraw the threat of redundancies or we have no choice but to move to ballot on industrial action.”
The UCU is campaigning to save a degree programme in Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol. It says the university is ignoring the wider deaf community, which has strongly criticised the plans.
The union is asking all members to support the campaign to save the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University. The department has an international reputation and in the last Research Assessment Exercise, 65 per cent of its research activity was judged “world leading” or “internationally excellent”. It also brings funding into the university through major grants and teaches more than 100 students at the university.
The university has said it wants to move away from programmes like philosophy because they attract less funding per head than vocational subjects. The implications are serious for humanities everywhere. If a department which produces world-class research and teaching can be closed because it is not vocational, then arguably no humanities department anywhere is safe.
In every struggle lecturers and students need a vision that sees education in its broadest sense as integral to the future of the country.