2 October 2016

Organising against the HE Bill – what is at stake, and what you can do

Introduction – the Willets Plan

The Tory Government is pushing ahead with its attempt to privatise Higher Education using tuition fees as a mechanism.

The Higher Education and Research Bill 2016-17 (“HE Bill” for short) is a key piece in the jigsaw of measures that the ConDem Government began in 2010 when David Willets increased tuition fees to £9,000 and slashed the ‘block grant’ for Arts and Humanities subjects (and reduced the size of the block grant in other subjects).

The Bill is an English Bill but its impact is felt across Britain. Although it is presented as an “HE” Bill it will have a huge impact on FE, sixth-form colleges and schools.

The full extent of the Willets plan is laid bare in the HE Bill and the preceding White and Green Papers. The plan involved a number of elements:

  • Increasing tuition fees to £9,000 to make running courses commercially attractive. Fees of £3,000 were not enough for the private sector to be bothered with. A tuition fee hike also bought off some VCs.
  • Directing all funding through tuition fees, so “student choice” determines which courses are run and which universities stay open. Eventually the Government would get rid of block grants and replace them with higher fees in some subjects.
  • Creating an elaborate loan scheme to support fees. This is not working well: the likely level of return is too low to be sustainable long-term. But any problems with the scheme will be paid for by students (for example, not increasing the repayment threshold with inflation) and staff (by reducing the numbers of loans available for students in particular subjects, leading to cuts).
  • Gathering data on student recruitment, retention and graduate earnings to predict the likelihood that a student will repay their loan. This data parallels that used by the “TEF”. The intention here is for the Government to manage the market by manipulating fees and incentives.

Since then, the Government has removed caps on student numbers by subject. This creates opportunities for private businesses to jump in and grab a share of the most popular courses.

The behaviour of Coventry University, exposed recently by UCU in the press, is not merely a question of Sports-Direct practices in HE. It is commercially feasible because there are no limits on the number of students these private subsidiaries can recruit. This is a race to the bottom.

But the private companies also have a problem. These providers are not a credible university. Who would want to study at “Courses U Like”? Who would employ a graduate with a degree from the “Pearsons-KwickFit College”? They could pair-up with a university like Coventry. But really they would like to operate on a completely independent basis.

The solution they demand is to allow them to rebrand as universities. But they don’t want to pay for libraries, student unions, support for special needs, and everything else that universities provide.

The HE Bill

The next stage in the Willets Plan therefore requires an HE Bill.

This Bill has one purpose – to cut regulation to allow private companies to compete with existing universities. The Bill proposes to allow, extremely quickly, with very limited oversight, any company to call itself a “university” and gain the right to set their own degrees (‘degree-awarding powers’).

The purpose of the TEF is to replace existing strict regulation with light-touch regulation. It is nothing to do with teaching or excellence, but simplistic statistics to allow the Government to claim it is monitoring the market.

Currently, anyone wanting to set up a university faces a series of hurdles to gain accreditation. For example, you need to admit undergraduates for three years to get the right to award degrees. You need to get the QAA and the Privy Council to accept that your teaching is of high enough quality and that the college has a culture of academic freedom.

Who wants to set up a university? The main beneficiaries of the Bill will be for-profit companies who have milked the US university fee system and want to expand into the UK, and educational conglomerates like Pearson, who see an opportunity to gain new sources of profit. Both want to get rid of regulation in order to compete for students.

This changing marketplace in English HE is already triggering a combination of boom, bust and restructuring. Univerisities know which courses are over-subscribed. The removal of student number caps mean that they are allowed to expand their most popular courses and make easy money. At the same time more specialist courses and options are cut.

What does this mean for existing universities? The incentives for cut-throat behaviour by existing universities are staggering. An internationally-respected, research intensive professor can bring in 85% of their salary in overheads doing research, and bring in 85% of staff salaries for researchers. But they need labs and equipment. On the other hand a teaching-only lecturer with 30 students in a classroom can bring in more than five times this – 440% of their salary.

This is the context in which academic freedom and scientific excellence is sidelined in favour of a relentless drive for profit.

From London Met to UCL, universities are restructuring their staff, pressuring academics out of jobs or announcing wholesale redundancies. Some universities are building whole new campuses, while others, like LMU, are closing campuses, departments and buildings.

Universities know they face competition from the private sector and they are increasingly behaving like these private companies. The £2bn windfall from tuition fees has gone into capital projects not salaries, and universities are getting deeper into debt in order to build. The sting in the tail even for the “booming” colleges is that boom can easily turn to bust if the government changes the rules on loans.

The HE Bill cannot therefore be seen as separate or “above” trade union politics. Defence of education and jobs must be the starting point for every trade unionist’s perspective on campus. We need a strategy that aims for unity on campus from porters to professors with students in defence of Education and against these restructuring plans.

Although the HE Bill formally affects English universities, these are by far the biggest section of the UK HE sector. If English HE gets the market competition virus – and it already has – then it is only going to be a matter of time before Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland follow suit.

What is the HE Convention?

This is where the HE Convention fits in. The Convention is a broad united front bringing together left activists in UCU, independent academics and committed educationalists – including some members of the House of Lords – to attempt to defend a Higher Education sector worthy of the name.

The Second Convention brought around 100 people together in February, and allowed us to publish the Alternative White Paper (AWP) for Higher Education.

This gave the Convention the base to act quicky. We could get nearly 1,500 academics and educationalists to sign an open letter condemning the HE White Paper two days after it was published. We launched the AWP in Parliament and it was quoted extensively in the debates.

Thanks to our efforts, only Tory MPs voted for the Bill – all the other political parties, including the Ulster Unionists, SNP and Lib Dems – voted against. A small number of Tories voted against.

The next stage is the Third Convention, which will take place at University College London on 15 October. The Convention will be followed by the NUS/UCU demonstration on 19 November. Between these two dates, we need to get organised on every campus.

The Third Convention will be a campaigning Convention. It is oriented to the practical problem of targeting the Government and building widespread opposition to the Tories’ plans.

Every member should have a perspective of developing local resistance to the HE Bill as well as opposition to university management’s plans. This means organising mini-Conventions on our campuses, and creating networks.

What you can do

  • Book your ticket for the Third Convention and get colleagues to do likewise. Don’t leave this to the last minute. People may need to book early, particularly if they need to travel to London. Bring members from UCU, Unite and Unison branches, but also approach colleagues on a broad basis. Very many staff have a lifelong commitment to higher education. This is being trashed by a Conservative Government that cares more for private profit.
  • Organise a local Convention meeting in your college. Make the most of local speakers, but also approach the Convention for a national speaker to talk through the strategy. Involve the students union, and discuss how you are going to mobilise for the NUS/UCU demonstration. The “big politics” of the Bill will help build local resistance to its consequences.
  • Develop a Convention network of local academics and activists. Have organising meetings to discuss campaigning in the community and lobbying MPs. The Convention is developing campaigning material people can use to engage students, approach schoolteachers, and help explain the threat that the sector faces. The method should be one where UCU branches should try to lead initiatives where possible, but by working alongside all others who want to defend Education. The HE Bill also means that lobbying local MPs, particularly Tory MPs, will be extremely important.

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