Perfect Storm II. Photo: Emilio Küffer Perfect Storm II. Photo: Emilio Küffer

As the Tories’ mismanagement of higher education continues, Des Freedman looks at the battles ahead

Higher education is set for a perfect storm in 2019. Applications are likely to be down because of a drop in the number of 18 year olds while the chaos surrounding Brexit is causing additional volatility in the numbers of EU students planning to study in the UK. This isn’t helped by the leaks coming out of the government’s review into HE funding about cutting fees on some courses from the present £9250 to £6500 without any public contribution to offset the decline in revenue. Universities are taking advantage of this uncertainty by cutting costs mostly in the form of redundancy programmes with job losses announced at Bangor, Cardiff, Gloucestershire and Queen Margaret before Christmas following a previous round of cuts in the summer.

Meanwhile, universities have embarked on a frenzy of competition in a desire to build the shiny new buildings and facilities they believe are key to attracting new students. The Times recently claimed that the sector was ‘on the brink of a “credit crunch”’ with debts of £10.8 billion with Imperial College alone being nearly £500 million in debt in order to finance its expansion in west London. Of course the sector itself is hardly going bust – the most recent figures put its overall surplus at over £1 billion on income of nearly £30 billion. The sector must be doing ok if it can afford to pay its executives up to £830,000 a year as Exeter’s vice-chancellor, Sir Steve Smith, is about to earn. So, on the one hand you have the scandal of excessive pay for senior staff and some huge surpluses while, on the other, we are witnessing the daily experience of increased workloads, growing casualisation and rising stress that emerges out of the madness of a higher education ‘market’.

This is a political crisis of the government’s own making – not an organic or inevitable one. It’s a bit rich of the Tories to complain that the system is now unsustainable or that there are too many students when it was David Cameron and David Willets who designed a system back in 2010 – based on trebling tuition fees and eventually removing the cap on student numbers – that was specifically aimed at putting universities on a market footing and increasing ‘consumer choice’.

The latest half-baked plans to cut tuition fees to £6500 is simply a response by Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto pledge to remove tuition fees altogether – just one more reason why the government is running scared of Labour’s more radical promises. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely to succeed when even some of the architects of the original university reforms are arguing that a fees cut would be socially regressive and, according to WIlletts himself, ‘disastrous for universities and, above all, students’.

This won’t stop the employers from continuing their assaults on pay, pensions and conditions that escalated during 2018. They will use the uncertainty of Brexit, demographic change and a weak government to continue to make staff pay for a crisis they didn’t cause. It’s worth noting that, despite the rhetoric that even a below inflation pay rise ‘will be a stretch for many HE institutions’, staff costs have gone down as a proportion of total income from 58% in 1995 to 55% in 2017 (it’s also worth noting that average income per institution has increased in the same period from £55 million to £218 million and that spending on academic departments has fallen while spending on administration and central services like marketing and recruitment has risen from12% to 16%).

University staff, therefore, face a range of political and industrial battles in 2019. HE staff are re-balloting nationally, starting next week, against the employers’ already imposed pay offer of 2%. The first ballot last autumn failed to reach the legal participation threshold of 50% in most institutions even if there were huge majorities amongst those who voted for strike action. This won’t be straightforward: many members will be concerned about the wider economic picture, let alone the situation at universities who are in deficit, and will need convincing that sustained industrial action will deliver the action on pay, casualisation and equalities that are at the heart of the dispute. Perhaps the 5% pay rise won by staff last November at three London FE colleges after eight days of strike action (in which the chief executive of the college group agreed to waive his annual bonus) may provide some inspiration.

We will have to re-discover the confidence that emerged out of the transformational – and, thus far, successful – wave of strikes against attempts to decimate USS pensions by thousands of UCU members last year. This resulted in an ‘expert panel’ rubbishing the pension scheme’s valuation and effectively recommending the status quo. On Saturday, the Financial Times reported that the scheme managers have magically halved the £7.5 billion deficit that had originally triggered the dispute though they are still recommending increased contributions – something that should be resisted by UCU members given that, by all accounts, the scheme is in rude health – and are still clinging to their discredited valuation methods.

We will also have to campaign, alongside students, for the social value of a university education. Now isn’t the time to say that we can’t ‘afford’ widening participation in higher education (especially if there is a recession coming and jobs are increasingly scarce) nor is it the time to scale back our commitment to free education (as opposed to the cut-price and unsustainable education that Theresa May appears to be offering). Activists will have to campaign on all fronts – from local battles on governance and casualisation to the national battles on pay and pensions. This isn’t just a battle about what goes into our pockets but what kind of education system we want and what action we’re prepared to take if want to see a future for a high-quality publication education system.


Download a copy of the Branch Solidarity Network’s Activist Handbook for useful resources.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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