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.