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The Tories are using the Covid-19 crisis to impose ideological restructuring on universities – Amy Smith, Halifax CLP

“The pandemic has shown the reality of leaving institutions at the mercy of market forces. Universities are places of learning & research. They are not businesses; they should not be places run for private profit where Vice-Chancellors draw six-figure salaries.”

Amy Smith

August is usually a quieter time in Higher Education but, as the global pandemic continues, this summer universities face a funding crisis.

With the probability of lower student recruitment, it’s likely that all institutions will see a significant drop in their incomes in 2020/21. The most recent estimates from the Institute for Fiscal Studies predict a sector-wide loss of between £3bn and £19bn and the risk of bankruptcy for 13 institutions.

The Government’s response has been paltry. In May, Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, announced only that they would bring forwards £100m of quality-related research funding and a payment of £2.6bn in student loans for the sector.

But bringing forwards payments that universities would have received anyway simply moves the problem further down the line, creating a hole in university funding in the future.

Universities have responded by slashing spending. Staff have been hit hardest, particularly casualised workers who are already struggling the most. At many institutions the majority of staff on fixed-term contracts have not had their positions renewed and universities have opened voluntary severance schemes, with redundancies the next potential step.

In the worst cases, section 188 orders have been served – such as the University of Sheffield, where consultation is underway. This is the threat to “fire and rehire” staff on worse contracts, to force them to work different hours or for different pay. It’s an unforgivable attack on HE workers – destroying livelihoods, careers and the mental health of employees, particularly younger staff and People of Colour. Labour must join campus unions in opposing these devastating measures.

Seizing this opportunity, the Tories are using the Covid-19 crisis to impose ideological restructuring on universities. Last month, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that emergency loans would be approved for institutions in need, but only if they make a strong business case for support, close courses with low graduate pay and high dropout rates, and “demonstrate a commitment to free speech”. This is a coded but obvious ideological attack on social science, arts and humanities courses, and continues the devaluation of these subjects that has marked the Conservatives’ approach to education at all levels.

This approach has failed. Since the 1970s, the HE sector has gone through a process of neoliberalisation with successive UK Governments sharing a policy agenda that has set universities’ main goal as “contributing to the economic productivity of the country”.

The changes have led to an intense “customer”-focussed working environment, streamlining of teaching and research, and complex layers of managerialism. One of the worst outcomes is casualisation of the workforce. 46% of universities use zero-hour contracts to deliver teaching and 33% of academic staff are on fixed-term contracts (FTCs). Casualisation disproportionately affects BAME colleagues; 42% are on FTCs.

Along with other workers in the sector, this precarious workforce suffers from burnout and an epidemic of mental ill health, prompting the University and Colleges’ Union (UCU) to hold two strikes in 2019/20. The union intended to force universities to confront these problems and the related issues of intensifying workloads, pay inequality for women and BAME staff, and pay devaluation.

Insecure and undervalued staff ultimately deliver lower quality learning. Students lose good teachers because of the quick turnover of fixed-term contracts and because talented academics are unable to find work. Precarity and devaluation work directly against the neoliberal universities’ obsessive focus on student experience, which is yet another measure used by the Government to force HEIs to compete, alongside the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the reality of leaving institutions at the mercy of market forces. Universities are places of learning and research. They are not businesses; they should not be places run for private profit where Vice-Chancellors draw six-figure salaries. Labour must work – in the words of UCU’s ‘FundTheFuture’ campaign – to increase support for a public education system underpinned by fairness, equality, and cooperation.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto committed the party to ending the free market model for universities, to abolishing tuition fees, and to ending staff casualisation alongside promoting cooperation between institutions by ensuring fair funding for all. These policies and principles must not be abandoned. Now, more than ever, the Labour Party must fight for a public university sector that strives not for profit and league table placements, but for its staff, students, and the broader public good.

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