The Crisis in Higher Education

Once again, universities in the UK are in turmoil. Strike action has shut down campuses everywhere, in the second phase of a dispute that began last autumn. This in turn followed on a dispute that overwhelmed the sector in early 2018. Ostensibly focused on a proposed further degradation of what was once a high value pension scheme, the 2018 eruption actually brought a whole host of other sources of staff discontent to the surface. Hence, the 2019-20 strikes are focused not just on the still unsolved disagreement over pensions but also on the ‘four fights’: declining pay, increasing workloads, an epidemic of casualisation, and persistent inequalities making all of these worse for women and BAME university workers.

That there should be such discontent might come as a surprise to an outside observer. Stroll round a large university campus in England and you can often expect to see the signs of a boom – extravagant new building projects, lecture halls full of fee-paying students, a vice chancellor being whisked off to another high level function in a chauffeur-driven saloon. But staff unhappiness, stress, anger and burnout are the price being paid for this – as the union has noted, expenditure on staff as a proportion of total university spending has been declining for some years. Concern with the ‘student experience’, otherwise so important to university management, doesn’t seem to extend to ensuring that the academic and professional staff with whom they interact are supported and nurtured in their work.

The problems driving the disputes are UK-wide. Employees in many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish institutions are members of USS, the pension scheme at the heart of the dispute. University management doesn’t differ much in its approach across the various borders of the UK, pursuing similar policies in relation to financing, investment and staffing. Eyebrow-raising concerns such as spiralling senior management pay are just as evident in Scotland as elsewhere. And some elements of the policy context, such as the arrangements for government funding for research, are still decided at a UK level.

Nevertheless, the policy context for Higher Education in the nations of the UK is more and more divergent, and it’s important for those of us in Scotland to keep a beady eye on what is happening elsewhere as well as on circumstances that directly affect us. The most obvious sign of divergence, of course, is the tuition fee of £9,250 per year paid by students attending universities in England. The need to justify this fee has driven universities to splash out on highly visible buildings and facilities, while less flashy improvements such as mental health support are neglected by comparison. It has put a commodified idea of ‘the student experience’ at the centre of management priorities, and has undoubtedly changed the conditions in which both staff and students do their work – raising the stakes and the stresses, while transforming teachers into service providers and students into customers.

But some of the policy implications for HE in England arising from reforms made by Tory and coalition governments are only now becoming apparent. Direct government support for tuition was taken out of the equation for all but a few STEM subjects by 2016, and since then universities have been able to recruit as many undergraduate students as they could accommodate. Some of the larger and traditionally more prestigious institutions have happily expanded to the point of overcrowding, while others find themselves struggling to fill places now that the applicants have gone elsewhere. Many English universities are facing greater degrees of financial risk and uncertainty, and now some are moving to close down loss-making departments. The mooted closure of History at the University of Sunderland, or of English at Portsmouth, might not seem like much of a problem for anyone other than the staff and students affected, but these are straws in the wind – we are likely to see holes appear in the delicate web of higher education provision across England, making degrees in certain subjects unavailable to the applicants least able to move around or meet the entry requirements of the institutions still in demand. These, of course, are precisely the potential applicants already facing barriers to access.

And the problems are likely to get worse. Spooked by public hostility to fees, Theresa May’s government instituted a review of finance and funding in England which last summer recommended a reduction in the maximum tuition fee to £7500 per year. This was to be financed by the return of some direct funding for a wider range of courses, which would end the free for all and necessitate new caps for universities on student recruitment. But the levels at which such funding is provided, and at which tuition fees are pegged, look set to be determined by differences in graduates earnings between subjects and institutions, which will only serve to create a feedback loop of inequalities in a system which is already too unequal.

Since the introduction of £9k tuition fees in England in 2010, we have seen the UK government attempting to manipulate, regulate and monitor the sector to create the kind of outcomes it expected marketisation alone to produce. We have seen these fake ‘markets’ elsewhere in recent decades – in healthcare and in the railways, for example – and we’re familiar with the degree of discontent and waste they entail. Devolution has meant that the Scottish HE sector is insulated from some of their worst effects. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have problems of our own, or that our own government’s policy agenda in this area shouldn’t be criticised or subjected to searching scrutiny. But when Scottish critics of our current arrangements suggest that the answers to our problems might be found in what’s happened south of the border – as both of the larger opposition parties have been known to do – it’d be a good idea to look beyond their shiny prospectus to see what’s actually going on.

Comments (7)

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  1. w.b. robertson says:

    the uni staff, when not on strike, are obviously overworked and overstressed. my granddaughter, at a Glasgow university, does not have classes every day and yesterday, for example, she travelled in for a lecture which lasted one hour. students are paying through the nose for a four year course of part time education (during the weeks when they and the staff are not on holiday). hardly 21st century value for money. time to get real.

  2. Arboreal Agenda says:

    I work in HE in England and am on strike.

    The article is mostly spot on. I’d add further that the squeeze on humanities subjects is serious and I know how it has changed because I have done the job for 20 years. In music (my subject), the numbers of students studying it at secondary level has dropped by nearly two-thirds since 2010 with the inevitable drop in HE numbers too. This is all down to government policy since then (well outlined above). Prestigious institutions have responded by lowering their entry requirements and making the most of the lifting of the number cap. The result is that in ‘new’ universities such as I work in, our jobs are now on the line and departments themselves in serious jeopardy. It is a tragedy. In many ways this strike is as much about the the ruinous marketisation of HE as anything else. We are now treated as if we are expendable, just another cog in the HE capitalist machine. It wasn’t like this pre-2010, in, dare I say it, the Blair years.

    One point about Scotland – whilst no tuition fees are charged for Scottish and EU students, English students do pay the standard going rate. The result is that institutions are very keen to take English students it seems. I have a friend at the Glasgow School of Art and I said to her it must be nice to teach students who don’t yet see themselves as customers and she said, no, it isn’t, because they are nearly all English. I wonder how much income is generated in Scotland this way? I did read somewhere that the loss of English students, to be replaced by Scots or EU ones, would make a very serious dent in the Scottish HE funding.

  3. florian albert says:

    James Loxley writes of the ‘delicate web of higher education provision across England’. One of the examples of a struggling university he cites is Sunderland. From 1901 till 1969, this was a technical college. From 1969 till 1992, it was a Polytechnic. Then it became a university.
    The huge expansion in University education in recent decades has proved to be of questionable value.

    The historian David Edgerton – a university professor himself – summarized what has happened. ‘In the late 1980s especially, an unexpected expansion in publicly funded higher education (began) … In a British unversity city in 1950, there might be fifty professors; fifty years later there might be 1,000. In 1950, the university might have been a small feature of a bustling city centre; in the post-industrial city, the university might be one of the main employers, and the middle class students a motor of the town’s economy. Universities, once close to production and associated with a certain austerity, were now congregations of up-market consumers.’

    1. Arboreal Agenda says:

      True but the fact is that it has happened and it was the Tories who decided to get rid of Polytechnics and then along with the lying LibDems, who designed an unsustainable and utterly failing fee system. Society now runs like this and employers now demand graduates. What you cannot do is destroy such a system by turning it into a totally bogus market and if one of those universities that can be so crucial to a local economy goes under, the consequences go way beyond those who find themselves made redundant. Where I live, if the university shut down the town of several hundred thousand, already reeling from retail collapse, would be half destroyed.

      1. florian albert says:

        ‘society now runs like this’ If, as I believe, it should not run like this, then we should make changes. These could lead to fewer universities and more high quality vocational education. (I accept that this last point has been proposed for generations without much being achieved.)

        ‘totally bogus market’ I disagree on this. There is a genuine market in Higher education. (Arguably, there are several markets.) If you have a degree from an elite university, eg the Russell Group, or from an elite faculty, eg medicine, your employment opportunities are superior to those at a former polytechnic.

        ‘universities … can be so crucial to a local economy’ This argument did not save the shipyards, the steelworks or the coal mines. In the long run, it will not save universities.

        1. Arboreal Agenda says:

          There is no proper market in HE – the fact that certain institutions have a greater reputation has been true for at least 200 years. What I am talking about is the artificial market imposed since 2010 whereby there is now open war to attract students yet everyone charges the same, whilst at the same time the loans paid out are not being paid back. Then you also have the private for profit institutions also allowed to charge fees and their students get loans, whilst the rest do not try and make a profit as their ethos is totally different. As for students seeing themselves now as customers and lecturers as just another bunch of workers HE have to control – it is a disaster and totally against any sound principle of education: education is a social and economic good, not something to be bought and sold; its value is not in making a profit, though of course being solvent has always mattered.

          You may well think that we need less HE institutions and that less people should go to university but you don’t address that by introducing a failing system with the desire to have certain places go bust, based not on their real value but on the fact they happen to be in a place that has little HE prestige or is not in a big city. Arguably the opposite should be true – Bolton or Sunderland and their peoples benefit from a university much more than one of the many in London, Manchester or Leeds but the unfair market will close Bolton and Sunderland. It is time to stop this concentration of money and power in a few big cities, and the new universities were actually a good step in this direction.

          1. florian albert says:

            ‘education is a social and economic good’

            I think we need a more nuanced approach to HE than this quotation implies. According to OECD figures, 42% of adults in the UK are graduates. For France, the figure is 32%; for Germany 27%. The UK figure is inflated by the huge increase in university provision which – as David Edgerton pointed out – began about 35 years ago.
            Despite this expansion, the UK is – in comparison to Germany – a low wage, low skill and low productivity economy. This makes paying for the, much bigger, HE sector very difficult.
            The ‘unfair market’ reflects the (unfair) fact that most young people want to go to university in a big city rather than a town.
            The same problem applies after these students graduate. They do not want to leave the big city. The problems that schools and hospitals far from the big cities have in recruiting staff is well known.

            The recent strike by university staff has received very little publicity in the mainstream media. This apparent public indifference should alarm the HE sector.

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