Open letter – Covid-19 demands a rethink of Higher Education funding

End tuition fees and market competition

This open letter was launched 31 March 2020 for immediate publication on the HE Convention website. You can add your name on this Google Form.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the whole of society.

Higher Education faces an existential financial crisis just as university researchers bend every effort to defeat Covid-19.

The benefits of HE are not just limited to research. Mass education from secondary to university created a scientifically-literate population. They drove the shutdown, demanding Boris Johnson and his Government acted.

But Higher Education itself has been undermined by a combination of Government policy, high tuition fees and management greed.

In 2010, the ‘ConDem’ Government raised home student undergraduate tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year, and (mostly) abolished block grants. Within three years, mature and part-time student numbers had almost completely collapsed.

Undergraduate numbers were controlled until 2014 when (with the exception of Medicine) the Government removed limits on student recruitment.

This lit the touch paper on a conflagration. For a £9,000 fee, university managers could make easy money out of undergraduate teaching. With no limit on the number of students universities could recruit, many expanded rapidly and built new campuses. But others, mainly post-92 universities, found their student numbers squeezed by intense competition for places in so-called ‘top’ universities. Brand name, not teaching quality, dominated. Undergraduate expansion encouraged further recruitment of overseas students and taught postgraduate courses, where fees could be even higher. Scottish Universities, not permitted to charge high fees, pursued overseas student recruitment in particular.

Before Covid-19, this system was already teetering on the brink. Universities were reportedly indebted by over £10 billion, and the total UK student loan debt had reached £121 billion by March 2019. Undergraduate student numbers were falling and several universities were rumoured close to bankruptcy.

Covid-19 changes the economic equation. Universities in the UK can now expect a sharp fall in total student numbers in September. Many students will delay applications for a year or two rather than apply for online courses. Some universities are contemplating delaying the start of term until January. It may be several years before the overseas student market recovers.

Already there is talk about bringing back the ‘cap’ on student numbers, even temporarily. But more drastic action is required to save Higher Education. Unless the Government acts now, the UK will see mass redundancies of university staff.

We the undersigned believe now is the time for a new deal for UK HE.

It is time to end the disastrous market experiment.

It is currently unthinkable that the Conservatives will privatise the NHS. Schools and further education know that their funding for next year is guaranteed. But Higher Education is uniquely vulnerable to a short-term fall in student recruitment.

  • We need emergency measures to stop universities going bankrupt. If unemployment rises as a result of a downturn, universities have an essential role to play in re-skilling mature students.
  • We need to return to the principle that Higher Education should be available to all who can benefit.

We call on the Government to:

  1. Abolish the current tuition fee system and underwrite the sector. Bring back the block grant.
  2. Work with university managements to safely exit expensive building projects and long-term loans.
  3. Agree that in the meantime there should be no redundancies, and staff on fixed term or other casual contracts should be paid as normal and not dismissed.

Initial signatories include

Carlo Morelli, UCU Scotland President, University of Dundee
Sean Wallis, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University College London
Julie Hearn, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, Lancaster University
Lesley Kane, UCU NEC, Open University
Deepa Govindarajan Driver, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University of Reading
Mark Abel, UCU Branch President, UCU NEC, University of Brighton
Marian Mayer, UCU Branch Co-chair, Chair South Region UCU, National Negotiator, Bournemouth University
Sue Abbott, UCU NEC, Chair Equality Committee and Women Members standing Committee, Newcastle University
Pura Ariza, UCU Branch Equality Officer and UCU NEC, Manchester Metropolitan University
Cecily Blyther, UCU NEC, Petroc
Steve Lui, UCU NEC, University of Huddersfield
Lesley McGorrigan, UCU NEC, University of Leeds
Margot Hill, UCU London Region Secretary and UCU NEC, Croydon College
Lauren Heyes-mullan, FE lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
David Whyte, UCU Branch Vice President, University of Liverpool
Bob Jeffery, UCU Anti-Casualisation Officer, Sheffield Hallam University
Annie Jones, UCU Branch Officer, Sheffield Hallam University
Malcolm James, UCU Branch Treasurer, Head of Department of Accounting, Economics & Finance, Cardiff Metropolitan University
Chris Collier, Associate Lecturer, Anglia Ruskin University
Kathryn Dutton. UCU Yorkshire and Humber Region Chair (HE), York St John
Brian O’Sullivan, UCU West Midlands Region Chair, Bournville College
Sunil Banga, UCU Branch Vice President, Lancaster University
Peter Dwyer, University of Warwick
M Yasacan, PhD candidate, University of Keele
Stefanie Doebler, Lancaster University
Leon Sealey-Huggins, Lecturer, UCU Branch Committee member, University of Warwick
Katucha Bento, University of Leeds
Fatima Rajina, Lecturer
Shirin Housee, Course leader in Sociology, University of Wolverhampton
Johanna Loock, University of Leeds
Erik Jellyman, Research Associate, Lancaster University
Joss Winn, Senior Lecturer, UCU Branch Secretary, University of Lincoln
Roddy Slorach, UCU branch organiser, Imperial College London
Richard Mcewan, UCU Branch Sec, UCU NEC Elect, New City College THC Poplar
Michael Rees, Lecturer in Sociology, UCU Rep, University of Wolverhampton
Benjamin Vincent, University of Dundee
Thomas Gallagher-Mitchell, Lecturer, Liverpool Hope University
Rhiannon Lockley, UCU Branch Secretary, Birmingham City University
Samantha Wilson, Student/EAP Tutor, University of Leeds
George Lovell, Lecturer, Abertay University
Yvette Russell, University of Bristol
Ronald Mendel, Associate Lecturer, University of Northampton
Graham Smith, Deputy Subject Leader for Psychology, University of Northampton
David Saunders, Deputy Subject Leader, University of Northampton
Richard Dixon-Payne, Retired HE lecturer,
Nils Markusson, UCU Branch Treasurer, Lancaster University
Sonya Andermahr, Reader in English, UCU Equality Rep, University of Northampton
Mark Baxendale, UCU Branch Committee member, Queen Mary University of London
David Swanson, UCU Branch President, University of Manchester
Georg von Graevenitz, Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London
Mike Orr, UCU Branch Committee member, Edinburgh University
Shirin Hirsch, UCU History co-rep, Manchester Metropolitan University
Eamonn Leddy, UCU Branch Secretary, Capital City College Group (Centre for Lifelong Learning)
Nina Doran, UCU H & S rep, City of Liverpool College
Naomi Waltham-Smith, Associate Professor, University of Warwick
Grant Buttars, UCU Branch President, UCU Scotland Executive member, University of Edinburgh
Katie Nicoll Baines, Project Manager, University of Edinburgh
Anne Alexander, UCU Branch Committee member, University of Cambridge
Linda Jorgensen, Lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
Claudia Campbell
Megan Hunt, Teaching Fellow, University of Edinburgh
Nadia Edmond, UCU Branch Chair, Falmer, University of Brighton
Verity Bambury, Lecturer, The City of Liverpool College
Tucker MacNeill, UCU H&S Rep, Falmer, University of Brighton
Penny Hope, Lecturer, City of Liverpool College
Cheryl King, Lecturer, City of Liverpool College
Julie Brennan, Leader of KS 4 provision, City of Liverpool College
Carol Cody, Liaison Secretary, City of Liverpool College
Tony Sullivan, London College of Fashion (UAL) Branch Secretary , University of The Arts London
Ümit Yıldız, UCU Black Members Standing Committee, Manchester University
Andrea Genovese, University of Sheffield
Richard Smith, Reader, University of Warwick
Prof Gargi Bhattacharyya, University of East London
Anna Robinson, University of East London
Richard Smith, Reader, University of Warwick

Government defeated over the HE Bill at the first Committee stage

» Download this briefing as a PDF

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-09-51-58The Government has been forced on the back foot after the Lords pushed through an amendment to the HE Bill which reaffirms what universities are for.

This is an important amendment, because it represents the clash of two very different ideological perspectives on the purpose of a university.

The premise of the HE Bill is that a university is a kind of “higher education provider” – like a toothpaste provider.

The Government has defined universities in this crass way because it opens the door to private companies swooping in, setting up campuses and charging high tuition fees to students. In the USA this has meant a colossal expansion of what is known as the ‘for-profit’ sector. This is now in decline as a result of a series of frauds and scandals.

Although it might sound quite bland and obvious, stating that “a university must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech” makes a very big distinction between a university and a private company. If you are a scientist working for a private company and you publish research that is critical of a commercial partner of your employer, you will almost certainly be fired.

Publicly-funded, publicly-accountable science is crucial to a free society. So the engineering researchers in the US who blew the whistle on Volkswagen were probably funded by the automobile industry and needed their cooperation to test vehicles. But they found a big discrepancy between the industry’s published figures on emissions and what they saw in the lab. They were able to publish the results because they were protected by the principle of academic freedom – whistle-blowing clauses in their contracts.

After the gold rush

In 2011 the Coalition Government introduced 9K fees, and cut the per-department ‘block grant’ (scrapped it altogether in some subjects). In 2014 they removed the cap on student numbers. This unleashed a wave of speculative expansion by existing universities (a ‘gold rush for students’). Universities saw they could expand student numbers, and once they had covered their costs, each extra student recruited was pure profit. They hired staff on short-term contracts and started pouring money into new campuses. The starting gun was fired on a race to the bottom.

This is now placing extreme strain within universities. Government-funded research earns the university an additional 80% on top of salaries. But if you do the maths, a teaching staff member costing £50,000 a year teaching 30 students paying £9,000 will earn the university 440% on top. The incentive is clear – push out research-active academics, who “only” bring in 80% of their salaries, and hire teaching staff, expand marketing and building space.

What does this amendment mean?

It is vindication of all of those who have got organised to oppose the Bill. It should be the start of many amendments to remove other clauses from the HE Bill. These clauses let private companies brand them-selves as a University from Day 1, write degree programmes without oversight, etc.

» The amendments the HE Convention is arguing for

Across our campuses, colleagues should approach the question of organising against the HE Bill and defending Education with renewed vigour.

The NUS has launched their boycott of NSS. Student Unions are open to organising with UCU branches and other trade unions to explain the Bill and the Boycott.

What you can do

  • Organise meetings on campuses and communities. Our first task is to bring people together who want to do something. We can all circulate the link to the ‘College, Inc.’ video to colleagues, include a link to the HE Convention website, and ask them if they’d like to help organise a meeting about the HE Bill.
  • Invite outside speakers. If you need a speaker from the Convention, email us or add a comment to their website. Think about whether you want to open the meeting up to a Public Meeting and invite MPs to debate. This can draw a crowd, but you may want to start small and build up to a Public Meeting after the Third Reading.
  • Lobby your local MP in their constituency. MPs have constituency surgeries. You can arrange to turn up in a large group and ask to speak to the MP about the Bill. It can be powerful to send in a student and a staff member as delegates. But this does not mean you should not try to turn up en masse. Numbers turning up in the constituency help remind MPs that they rely on you for votes. Invite the local press. Target Tory MPs – the votes are on party lines.
  • Support the NUS boycott of NSS. Make sure your UCU branch is putting out statements in support of the NSS boycott. Talk to the SU. Get staff meetings together to put out statements. For example, some departments at UCL have put out statements saying “normally we would call on all students to participate in the National Student Survey, but the NSS is boycotting it and this is why”. Strengthen the arguments the NUS are using – mostly about tuition fees – with an explanation about the TEF and the HE Bill. See the Convention website for more details.

See also

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.