Lord Browne's review of university funding, published yesterday, is the biggest attack ever launched on higher education in this country. If made into law, it will herald the death of equality of access to learning.
Former BP chief executive Browne, himself the beneficiary of a free university education, has recommended allowing universities to charge unlimited tuition fees. He has recommended the future removal of all state funding from arts and humanities.
He has recommended raising the interest rate paid on loans for tuition. He has recommended the takeover and closure of universities.
This is devastating. It is a far-reaching extension of market logic deep within the education system.
The consequences of extending that logic have been spelled out in a recent report by Universities UK, the lobby group. They describe a segregated university system - a tiny elite of colleges, levying massive fees to well-off students, and a struggling minority of institutions.
A university education, in the form we would now recognise it, would be a hopeless fantasy for most students, struggling with rising debt, part-time work, and studies mercilessly geared towards the presumed needs of business.
The future, under Browne, is of an under-fed version of the grossly unequal US university system.
Browne has offered some sops. The Student Finance Programme will provide loans to students to cover the cost of fees. This loan is to be paid back once students start earning. Grants are proposed for the very poorest students.
Browne claims that by removing the need to pay fees up-front he has addressed concerns about equality of access. But there is a very obvious catch. Those earning more will be able to pay back loans more quickly. Those with rich parents can pay immediately.
Both, perversely, will pay less for their education than those earning less. The NUS estimates that those earning £35,000 after graduation would pay £37,800 in total. Those earning £100,000 would pay £31,849.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies has estimated that universities will need to charge at least £7,000 a year in fees to compensate for the loss of a teaching grant. The elite colleges will have no problem with this, earning far more in fees in income. The majority will lose out.
All Browne's tweaking cannot stem the market's logic - those that have will have more given to them.
The transformation of higher education
The Browne Review is being offered as the best available solution to a crisis in university funding.
Attendance at university has risen steadily for the last four decades, from 6 per cent of 18 to 19-year-olds in the 1960s, to around 45 per cent today.
This increase is tied directly to changes in the economy. Advanced capitalism needs a well-educated workforce. But the kinds of education required has changed.
In the 1960s, over 40 per cent of the UK workforce was employed in manufacturing. Today, that figure is around 20 per cent. Stable employment, often with a single employer for decades, has been replaced by unstable working. A new, service sector working class has been created.
Employers once offered apprenticeship schemes and in-house training, for skills specific to a particular industry or even firm. They bore many of the costs of educating a workforce beyond school age.
But the new service industries require more general, information-processing skills - “transferrable”, in the rhetoric of human resources. And the demands of teaching more advanced technical skills were increasing sharply.
Increasingly mobile firms had no desire to carry the costs of providing these skills themselves. An investment in training would be wasted if the firm relocated, or the worker changed jobs.
So the costs were pushed onto the state. Universities expanded. Training after school became socialised.
The state has attempted to reduce its costs over time. Spending per student has collapsed, dropping by some 36 per cent over the 1990s as expansion continued.
Some of those costs have been privatised, through the removal of grants and the introduction of tuition fees. But the bulk remained with the state.
The economic crisis
This new, socialised training system ran into the financial crisis of 2008. The total costs of bailing out the UK banking system have been estimated as £1,200bn.
The colossal scale of the bailouts and the costs of the recession created the sharp rise in national debt. And the financial system is unreformed - as the return to bonuses as usual shows. It will hit another crisis and demand another bailout.
British capitalism is too feeble to afford this. It cannot pay for both a welfare state and a bloated financial sector.
The Coalition government has opted to pay only for finance. So every part of public spending is squeezed.
That pressure is driving the Browne review. One estimate suggests that the government is looking to make 70 per cent cuts to the funding of teaching on the back of it.
Winning the fight
But this is a weak, divided government. It has no meaningful popular mandate. The public are increasingly unconvinced by the need to cut immediately. The signs of a double-dip recession are ominous.
And already backbench Coalition MPs are opposing Browne's plans. All Browne's fudging and finessing have not been enough to quell them.
A vote on the proposals could take place very soon. There is every chance that the government could be defeated.
A mass, national campaign can pile on the political pressure. Already students are mobilising for both the day of the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October, and a national demonstration with the lecturers' union on 10 November.
A victory here would be a major blow against the Coalition. Its planned attack on the welfare state could be thrown into reverse.
The Coalition of Resistance conference on 27 November will be the place where all the separate strands of resistance come together. A mass, national campaign against the cuts across the public sector needs to be created.
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