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

The Fight Of Our Lives – Round 2

Second London Demo 14 March 2018

The Augar report

The disastrous HE tuition fee market experiment of 2011 is unravelling.

The much-trailed Tory-commissioned review into HE funding, the Augar Report, is proposing cuts in tuition fees to £7,500 but a much harder ‘hit’ on students: faster repayment schedules with a lower repayment threshold, a lower interest rate but students will carry a debt for 40 years instead of 30.

In UCU Left, we have always argued for cutting tuition fees to zero, bringing back grants, and demanding that “all who may benefit can come” to university (the so-called Robbins Principle). For us, Higher Education is the gift each generation bestows on the next – access to knowledge at the highest level. Make the super-rich pay their taxes, and this is entirely feasible.

But that is not what this cut is about. 

Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckon that the wealthiest students would benefit the most from the changes.

But this change – the unilateral imposing of new rates for degrees – is also a colossal market intervention on a supposed independent market!

The shockwaves will be massive.

So far the government has said it will not bail out colleges. Yet many universities have taken on large long-term debts for building projects. The Times reported in January that universities had taken on £10bn in loans.

Second, the market changes are intended to reduce student intake in certain subjects – Arts and Humanities disciplines in particular – that have seen the greatest expansion. Colleges which are dependent on these courses are likely to suffer the greatest.

If the changes are implemented, this new round of state intervention will likely drive some universities into the wall and propel students out on the street, indebted and degree-less. This happened in the USA with the collapse of the Corinthian Colleges, and if Augar is implemented, it is bound to happen here. The HE Bill (now ‘Higher Education & Research Act’) changed the constitution of university funding to explicitly allow universities to go bankrupt without being required to teach students to completion.

The Tory ex-HE minister, Jo Johnson, criticised the report, saying, correctly, that it will destabilise university finances. You’re not kidding.

Even before Augar, press leaks were of universities teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the ‘Office for Students’, was reported in response saying that “no university is too big to fail”.

Now that boom-time is coming to an end, the employers are trying to make us pay the price. Just as they siphoned up the profits of HE expansion, faced with boom turning to bust, the university employers are trying to make us take the pain. They have held down pay increases below inflation yet again, driving down the proportion of budgets going to staff costs (pay and pensions) across HE, driving up surpluses and capital investments. Across our sector, from Westminster to the Open University, we have seen wholesale redundancies amidst shiny new buildings.

In the Pre-92 sector, the market is undermining the pension scheme. And the same approach is now being applied to TPS. Treating Post-92 colleges as independent universities justifies the Tory response to the Teachers Pension Scheme crunch – no more money – triggering cuts and redundancies, and potentially break-away pension plans.

We need a concerted national plan to defend the Post-92 Contract, redundancies and escalating workload in these universities. Most of all we have to fight like a national union and defend the sector.

So once a fightback in Pre-92 begins, we should use this to inspire resistance in Post-92. We are now committed to a pay fight uniting both parts of the sector. See below.

The USS crisis

In UCU Left, we have long argued that the USS crisis derives directly from HE market competition. In 2017, we saw Cambridge and Oxford colleges threaten to go it alone. This May, Sir David Eastwood, USS JNC chair, wrote to Bill Galvin, USS CEO, to say that USS needed to account and pay for the risk of HE institutions breaking away from USS.

Market madness is undermining USS.

Is USS in trouble?

  • USS is paying out less in benefits than it is taking in. In 2018, USS received £2.2bn in contributions and paid out only £2.0bn – a 10% surplus.
  • Neither the scheme’s assets, nor returns on those assets, are currently being drawn upon to pay benefits. The scheme is ‘immature’, growing and healthy.
  • Yet, at the insistence of the employers, USS management is ‘de-risking the portfolio’ by moving investments from equity (stocks and shares) to debt (gilts), causing a loss of 4.8%pa+ to the scheme. This is because government bonds and gilts have a low level of return, below CPI. Long-term this means inflation ‘eats the pension pot’, creating a real deficit.
  • This is heaping risk upon the scheme and eroding its long-term viability. The models used by USS Ltd to estimate its future viability are seriously mathematically flawed in other ways.
  • The only reason to ‘de-risk’ is if you think the universities won’t be around to act as guarantors to the pension fund. And the reason you might think that is because of the current market madness engulfing the sector.

See also: Let’s reclaim USS, Deepa Govindarajan Driver

The current huge USS contribution hikes are in essence covering the cost of the ‘employer covenant’ – the guarantee that employers collectively make to guarantee the future of USS. This works on the presumption that universities will be around in the future, to support USS in the future. But market competition makes university survival less certain, pushing the scheme into a winding-up (‘de-risking’) valuation methodology. Hence ‘de-risking’, the misnamed process of devaluing the assets by dumping them in low-interest bearing government bonds and gilts.

The root of the problem is simply this. In a winner-takes-all, devil-takes-hindmost cuthroat competition, universities see each other as unknown risk bearers at best, enemies at worst. Thus in May, Trinity College Cambridge announced it was leaving USS because it did not wish to carry the pension risk of other colleges’ pensioners.

It is bad enough that costs on us are sky-rocketing. Worse, paying these additional contributions is to reward and encourage failure!

We cannot address this crisis by negotiating and hoping. We need leverage.

Look what happened after we stopped striking. We went backwards.

  • The USS Board shredded the First JEP Report – and any move to avoid ‘de-risking’ – because they believed UCU had demobilised.
  • One of our USS trustees, Jane Hutton, was forced out for criticising USS’s approach to the valuations.
  • The Pension Regulator is saying that even ‘Option 3’ is unlikely to be viable.

We are heading for disaster unless we fight.

USS + FE Demo, 28 Feb 2018

We have to fight back

When we fight we can rebalance the equation.

Before we struck in 2018, everything seemed lost. USS was heading for the abyss of 100% Defined Contribution. Within two weeks into 14 days of strikes, and UUK were beginning to backtrack.

But we stopped our strikes too early. Not because the JEP was not well-intentioned – but because the Achilles heel of the JEP was that USS Board could ignore its recommendations.

Every Pre-92 branch of UCU faces a stern test. How will we rebuild the fight to defend USS?

We need to get organised.

Starting now, how do we organise a Get the Vote Out Campaign that instils confidence in our members to strike in the Autumn?

We will face two arguments.

  1. “We fought before but here we are, so what’s the point?”
    • Our strike was successful but it was only one battle in a war to defend our pension. If we had continued to victory, we might have won outright.
  2. “Pension cuts are inevitable.”
    • They were not inevitable for the entire life of USS until 2011. What changed is the market competition in the sector, and USS adapting to it by ‘de-risking’ USS.

This is Round 2 in the fight of our lives. A serious fight to defend USS has every change of winning, and in the process building a bigger defence for the future of Higher Education in the UK, uniting with students and everyone who cares about the future of society and the role of universities in it.

We should re-raise the demand that as part of the Augar review, the Government should guarantee USS (and underwrite TPS costs). After all, they are directly intervening in the market they created and undermining the UK university sector as a result.

What next?

UCU’s HE Conference decided on the following key actions:

  • Declare a dispute with the employers immediately over the imposed extra contributions.
  • Ballot members in September and October for serious strike action in the autumn term.
  • Build a big political campaign calling members into action, including a Day of Action.
  • Call a Higher Education Sector Conference in the late autumn term to review next steps.
  • Organise a pay campaign alongside pensions and unite the whole union across HE.

Branches need to call General Meetings before the end of the Summer Term, to report back on Congress and HE Conference. Invite our new General Secretary Jo Grady, a USS negotiator or an HEC member to speak.

It is time to wake up the ‘strike committees’, ‘action committees’ and other campaign networks that branches built up before and during the last USS strike. Every single member who took strike action has a stake in this fight.

We need to plan the biggest possible Get the Vote Out campaign for September and October.

We need to explain that we won the battle, but we have not yet won the war.

We can put this right in Round 2.

But we need to get organised.

Obvious Question: How can we fight a climate crisis with a bankrupt university sector?

Get organised to Get the Vote Out

Build the ballot over pay, equality, workload and casualisation

Get the vote out flyer

UCU has called a five-week ballot for industrial action over pay this term. It opens on Tuesday 15 January and closes on Friday 22 February. It is timed for the maximum duration while still allowing members to take hard-hitting strike action this term and hit exams next term. So if we win the ballot we can take serious action.

We need to get organised.

First and foremost, this ballot is an organising challenge for every branch. Thanks to the Tory anti-union Trade Union Act, more than 50% of members eligible to vote must participate. Even if 100% vote YES, if only 49% vote, the vote does not count.

The main reason members do not vote is simply that they forget. Paper ballot envelopes and forms are put aside and forgotten about. We have to set up the type of grassroots organisation that makes sure that everyone is asked to vote, encouraged and reminded right up to the deadline.

We know that when we get this right, we get a high turnout.

We know how to do this, but we are all shockingly busy. We know workload – one of the key demands of the campaign – is ridiculous in our sector.

We must make a conscious effort to get organised. We have to treat the organisation of getting the vote out with exactly the same seriousness and care as when we organised the strike over pensions last year, and when we fought local campaigns over redundancies in the past.

The evidence shows it can be done, but we have to make a decisive shift to get the turnout.This is the second ballot we have had over the same pay round.

In the Autumn, the overall turnout was 42%. It was a ‘disaggregated’ ballot: each branch was counted separately. 7 institutions got over 50% turnout. One branch, Herriot-Watt, got a 64% turnout, many of the big branches got between 40 and 50%. The votes for strikes and ASOS were overwhelming, but they could not be actioned.

What we need to do

Every branch needs to

  • call organising meetings to kick off the ballot;
  • then organise a series of meetings in departments and buildings to explain the issues, and encourage debate;
  • organise members to systematically remind colleagues in each department, just as we would if organising a picket line rota.

The 50% threshold is a deliberate anti-democratic burden, designed to prevent unions from striking even when votes in favour are overwhelming.

But it is also a challenge to every member. What is the point of voting if your vote is wasted? The message has to be

Step 1: vote yourself, and Step 2: ask your colleagues to vote. Generations fought for the right to vote. Don’t let passivity undermine democracy.

We need to set up action committees to carry this out. We cannot leave it to a few branch reps. Every member has a stake in this fight.

This is a political fight as well as an organisational challenge. In the autumn, the high YES votes indicate members were convinced by the arguments.

  • Pay. Our pay has been cut by at least 15% since 2008. UCU’s latest figures put the drop by as much as 21%. Every teaching assistant struggling to get by, every teaching fellow on a part -time contract, every researcher on fixed funding stuck near the bottom of the pay spine, each one is 15-20% poorer than they would have been a decade ago. Cuts in the rate for the job mean everyone is devalued. The pay offer of 2% this year is still a pay cut. Members in USS branches can expect their pay cut further.
  • Inequality. One result of low pay is that staff try to increase their pay by other means. We are seeing more individual bargaining and consequentially greater pay inequality. Individual bargaining (threatening to move and demanding a pay rise or moving and negotiating) tends to favour white male staff over women and BAME staff, and increases gender and ethnicity pay gaps. The shocking stories published by the BBC last week are a symptom of this.
  • Workload and casualisation. High workload and low pay are two sides of the same coin. The employers have used the fear factor of redundancies and casualisation to force up workload in our sector. If we do not fight to secure the casualised, the employers will casualise the secure. As the USS dispute showed, strike action allows us to push back against the workload tide we all struggle with. This ballot helps us put the issue on the map and demand action to cut excessive workload or increase paid hours.

New arguments

But the situation has developed in two important respects. What follows is a sketch of the new arguments we are likely to face, and some suggested counter-arguments to make. In USS branches, a strong YES vote also puts us in the best position to ballot over USS cuts.

Objection 1. Brexit

The argument goes something like this.

The future of the UK, and UK universities, is uncertain because of Brexit. Universities don’t know what will happen to student recruitment. We don’t even know whether UK universities will be able to bid for EU research funds, or if they can, on what basis. Now is the wrong time to fight. We should ‘wait and see’.

This is a perfectly understandable argument, but the conclusions are wrong. Instead of waiting, we need a big YES vote to give the union and members a voice. A strong YES vote with a high turnout gives the union the mandate with the employers and government to be taken seriously. It puts the union in a position to negotiate with the employers over pay and jobs precisely at the time when the employers may be looking for job cuts and pay cuts to pay for the mess they have got themselves into.

We can decide what we do with that mandate once we have it. But first we have to get the votes.

The USS dispute taught members two important lessons: we have power when we strike and hit lessons and threaten exams, and – with a credible threat of strike action – ‘impossible’ demands become possible. In the middle of the strike, the Chinese Embassy relayed a threat from the PRC Government to Universities UK: if strikes hit exams, Chinese students will not come to the UK next year.

Crucially, we need to put the universities on the political radar as a sector to be strategically defended in the aftermath of Brexit.

This means members standing up to be counted, voting YES in large numbers and taking action to defend themselves and the sector. A strong strike/ASOS vote over pay is the best protection against threats to jobs. A well-organised Get the Vote Out operation can be repeated for a local ballot over redundancies. Brighton University had a strong GTVO campaign over redundancies. Despite being a post-92, they got over 50% turnout in the autumn.

Objection 2. The HE funding ‘crisis’

If one crisis were not bad enough, the Tories are flirting with the idea of creating another. Whereas the Brexit timetable appears to be outside their control, this ‘crisis’ is entirely of their making.

As we know, in 2011 the ConDem government jacked up undergraduate ‘home’ university fees from £6,500 (£3,000 paid by the student) to up to £9,000 per student. The universities charged the maximum, £9,000. At the same time, the Government set up a complex new loan system covering fees and maintenance grants, and partially abolished the block grant payable to each department.

The Government racked up a mountain of debt to pay for these loans, which the Treasury projected as £90bn by 2021, of which only half will probably be repaid. This is the first – and by far the largest – debt crisis, one they have mainly kept secret.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the Government took the next step in the ‘Willets Plan’ and abolished limits on student numbers (except for a small number of subjects like medicine).

These changes created a situation where universities realised they might make vast amounts of money by expanding in competition with other universities. The new motto of the sector, including of the posh universities, was ‘Pile ’em high and teach ’em cheap’.

Competition creates winners and losers, and the winners gambled in a building and borrowing boom. Universities that reckoned they could grow have borrowed huge sums. According to the Times newspaper, the sector has £10.8bn in debts. UCL tripled their undergraduate recruitment and are building a new campus in East London, where they will be joined by the University of the Arts. Both are borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds.

Meanwhile, other universities, particularly those traditionally recruiting working class or mature students (post-92s, Open and Birkbeck), are seeing student numbers fall. High fees and the opening of spaces in ‘big name’ colleges is hitting them first. The HE funding crisis started at colleges like London Met, and spread across post-92. It is now hitting pre-92 universities through restructuring and redundancies. The employers want to pass the risk and cuts on to staff, as the USS pension fight shows.

No-one is immune.

But the Tories are considering turning a chronic crisis into an acute one. They are leaking proposals from the Augur review of Higher Education funding they commissioned last year. This report seems likely to propose a cut in undergraduate ‘home’ tuition fees to £6,500 at exactly the same time as new EU students are reclassified as ‘overseas’.

Behind the scenes the universities are frantically lobbying the Government to stop the cut unless the Government makes good the difference. At least three prominent Tory ex-ministers have now spoken out publicly. There is no particular need for the Tories to press this button now. But it is a stark reminder that we have battles ahead.

We must not misunderstand the weakness on the Government side. Macho talk from the ‘Office for Students’ that ‘no university is too big to fail’ misses the obvious point that if even one small university closes, several thousands of students will be out on the street with debts and no degree – and the OfS has no Plan B. A spate of college and course closures triggered by Government incompetence would create a massive political crisis. US scandals like Corinthian Colleges and Trump University will be a tea party by comparison.

What does this mean for our ballot? Just like the arguments about Brexit, we have to argue that if we don’t fight, we will lose. A strong YES vote puts us in the best possible position to defend pay and resist job cuts, whether they be triggered by Brexit uncertainty, university restructuring or college closures. It also emphasises the point we made throughout previous strikes on every issue: we ask students to defend staff on strike, because through our strikes, staff are defending Higher Education.

The splits in the Tories show that we have everything to fight for.

In conclusion

The truth is that the collective ability of staff to shape the direction of Higher Education ultimately depends on our ability to win industrial action ballots.

We need to get organised. The stakes could not be higher.

Every member, every activist and every rep must be mobilised.

We have five weeks to defend our sector and win the turnout we need.

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.


Jez he did!

Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the Labour leadership election will change the face of politics in Britain. His campaign focused the angry anti-Tory, anti-austerity feelings shared by millions.

In the article below Sean Vernell assesses the significance of the victory.


Jez he did! Corbyn’s victory brings with it ‘a new kind of politics’.

Corbyn speaking at rally-1000323

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful bid to win the leadership of the Labour Party has sent shock waves through the political establishment. His victory was overwhelming and gives him a huge mandate for the anti-austerity policies he put forward during the leadership campaign.

Corbyn’s first act as Labour leader was to speak out against the Tory Trade Union Bill and to join tens of thousands on the “Refugees welcome here” protest in London.

Despite the virulence of the attacks on him, his success in the election, with almost 60% of the first preference votes, was unequivocal. The significance of this victory is enormous. For two months all the political pundits, media hacks and the three other candidates have tried to make sense of his growing mass appeal not just with party members but also with a new generation that has, in the past, been turned off from official politics.

This election campaign has revealed just how out of touch the political establishment are with the true feelings of working people.

They used terms like ‘Corbynmania’ and ‘hysterical’ to describe the tens of thousands that his campaign attracted across Britain. The establishment pundits could only rationalise his popularity by putting it down to some form of mass neurosis.

They cannot understand why working people have such a profound sense of rage and injustice towards those at the top of society who continue to get wealthier whilst they get poorer. They fail to understand the frustration and anxiety that working people feel everyday as their work/life balance firmly tilts towards work – resulting in them having no time to spend playing and watching their children grow up.

They fail to understand the young.

A generation that has been brought up in an education system where developing the capacity to think and be critical has been replaced by ‘employability’, targets and tests. They have made it more difficult for children from working class backgrounds to access further and higher education by scrapping EMA and raising tuition fees. This is a generation that has been demonised by the press and blamed for successive governments’ failure to provide them with decent secure employment.

It is this discontent and these fears that Corbyn’s campaign gave voice to.

His campaign attracted 300,000 new members to join the Labour Party. At the core of his campaign lay an army of 16,000 volunteers who built the rallies and made the calls to get the vote out.

Corbyn rally-1000304


The offensive begins.

The campaign against Corbyn will no doubt start from day one. The media and the right within the Labour Party will try to portray Corbyn and his supporters as being out of touch with the electorate and who couldn’t possibly win a general election.

There’s nothing new here. This was exactly the excuse that Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair used to ‘modernise’ the party in the 80’s and 90s. They argued that the Labour Party (ie the left) had lost touch with the centre ground of British politics and needed to reconnect with the electorate.

For them that meant moving to the right and embracing the market, privatisation and ‘humanitarian’ wars.

Behind the Blairites’ political strategy lay an acceptance that working people are instinctively right wing and had lost any notion of a collective response to society’s

problems. They had, the Blairites believed, swallowed the individualist, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ politics of the Thatcher era. They concluded from this that rather than challenge these ideas the ‘modern’ Labour Party had to mimic the Tories if they were to win office again.

But it was always mistaken to believe that working people had simply accepted these ideas. Social survey after social survey throughout the 90s showed that on key Tory policies like privatisation and taxes most people were to the left of the official Labour Party.

What the Corbyn campaign proved is that by fighting on a principled, anti-austerity, anti- privatisation, anti- war platform and by putting forward alternatives based on collectivism he could attract people into engaging with official politics again.

But, of course, this is precisely what the establishment fears. After their hacks have spent hour after hour writing column after column complaining about the apathetic working class and tut-tutting at their refusal to turn out in elections, they are now faced with the potential of all those ‘chavs’ turning out to get actively engaged in politics.

The narrative will now change to complain about how Corbyn’s ‘new kind of politics’ is ‘too simplistic’ and that his supporters are not qualified to really understand the complexities of running a modern dynamic economy like Britain’s. The Press, employers and the right within the Labour Party, who are a part of the establishment, will collude to do everything that can to destabilise and undermine the Corbyn leadership. They will be relentless.

That is why trade unionists and activists need to rally support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti- austerity stance and his democratic right to lead the Labour Party.


Corbyn’s victory: A real boost to every campaign

Refugees welcome here banner-1000336

Corbyn’s victory will lift the confidence of all those who wish to fight back against austerity and injustice. Every trade unionist will feel more confident to take on every bullying manager knowing that their views are not extreme – we are now the mainstream.

He has long been a friend to trade unionists in struggle and to those fighting to defend educational provision. He is on record as proposing a National Education Service (like the NHS), opposing free schools and academies, supporting lifelong learning (to be paid for by a 2 percent increase in corporation tax), scrapping tuition fees and reinstating grants, and abolishing the charitable status of private schools. Clearly these policies will be enthusiastically supported by all those who work and are taught within the education sectors.

Every anti-racist and anti-war activist will feel more confident knowing that the leader of the Labour party is for scrapping Trident, pulling out of NATO and will oppose sending the poor and unemployed of one county to go and kill and maim the poor and unemployed of another.

There will be pressure, no doubt, even from Corybn’s own supporters to seek compromise with those who are hell-bent on destroying him. We will need to resist those pressures.

The real power to defeat austerity and prevent the new moves to war in Syria, for example, lies in building a mass austerity movement in the workplaces and on the streets. This means seizing every opportunity to block the Tories’ plans in the coming weeks and months. It means building on the mass solidarity in support of refugees and migrants and against racism which has mushroomed in the last few weeks.

The main defence against all those forces that seek to undermine Corbyn’s mandate is the movements that gave birth to Corbynism in the first place. As long as we are clear about this and continue to build the movement against austerity, war and racism then the excitement and enthusiasm for a new kind of politics ushered in by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leader of the Labour Party, could be the harbinger of real hope and change for the left in Britain.

Next stop Manchester, Sunday 4th October.

The week after, on Saturday 10th October, the UCU Left conference, which could hardly be better timed, ‘Education in the front line: how do we fight the austerity agenda?’ will take place in central London. You can register for this by visiting the UCU Left website,, where there is also a downloadable flier.

Sean Vernell, UCU Coordinating Secretary City and Islington College and FE national negotiator.