What’s Coming For (English) Higher Education?

Pt. 1: Variable Fees, Human Capital and John Lewis Universities

Last month, the Beyond Education editorial collective was invited to speak at a Red Square Movement organising meeting, ahead of the group’s The World Transformed festival session, about what is coming for English higher education this academic year.

None of us could make it, so I offered to tell them what I thought, based on the research I have been doing for the last few years, and my experience organising in the University and College Union. What follows is not very dialogic – it’s mainly me explaining stuff – but I think is important enough to publish here.

This provides a companion piece to a forthcoming article in Post-16 Educator, for which I was asked to do something similar. This latter article was massively influenced by my chat with Zac and Connor, which clarified to me what is actually important to the student movement, in terms of its future strategy.

Speaking across staff-student concerns and generational divides is absolutely essential if we are going to establish a united movement in not just HE, but all levels of education and with the wider fight against neoliberalism in public services and society more generally. 

I thank Zac and Connor for the opportunity and the patience in listening to me rattle on. I hope it was useful, and I hope we can work together more closely as their national organising strategy takes shape.

If anyone else would like to chat about all this, or invite us to speak at events, just drop us a mail at beyondeducation@riseup.net.

DR

So, tell me a bit about what you are both doing.

CM

Over the course the year, we’ve had a few different student left groups, all kind of organizing online, like the Rent Strike network, a couple of groups in London, a group called Pause or Pay, for example. We formed a bit of a coalition that has put on a couple of events, such as the Organizing School with The World Transformed in Spring 2021, which was good. Over the course of the year, then, a rough group came together from different universities called the Red Square Movement. On Saturday, we’re getting together to talk priorities and strategy and also just to see each other in person for the first time ever, which is going to be really nice for a lot of us. We’ve got a lot of energy, and a lot of different ideas. So hopefully, we come outside there with some priorities, or a bit of like the beginnings of a strategy. And then we’re going to go to The World Transformed festival in September where we’ve got a session. Hopefully, off the back of that, we will run a big campaign of some sort at a national level later this year. But we don’t know what shape that’s gonna take yet. I don’t know if that’s a good summary Zac?

ZL

Yeah, for sure. The thing on Saturday is about the political landscape of higher education, and predictions of where we see going upcoming struggles, like what’s going on at the moment. That sort of stuff. So would be good to hear about that.

DR

Of course. So, my background is in HE. I was at Coventry University for about six years on a zero hours contract teaching all sorts of stuff, but broadly, in the Humanities. I was Secretary of the local UCU branch for most of that time. I was also on the UCU NEC for a bit. While I was Secretary, we did loads of stuff around university subsidiary companies. So, CU set up all these for-profit subsidiary companies, and including, basically, university campuses in other cities, like London and Scarborough. We did this campaign to unionise these subsidiary companies, because one of the main reasons they were set up was to take people out of the existing collective bargaining agreements, which set pay scales, working conditions, pension contributions and the like. Through that, I learned a lot. I mean, basically, everything that we’ll talk about, and everything that I’ve written, really comes out of that experience. I think that Coventry University continues to represent an important case study in marketisation at its most advanced.

CM

Well, thanks so much for agreeing to chat with us. It’s good to have a chat with someone who’s got a bit more of a longer engagement with all this stuff.

DR

No problem at all. So, I think that the context is important, because I think to many people working and studying in higher education, the context can seem to be messy and confusing. I think a lot of that is manufactured in order to keep people confused. But if you can piece it all together, then you can strategise what to do about it. It seems to me that there are three strands to what is happening right now, which are related. Firstly, there’s this whole debate about fees. Secondly, there’s the related debate about value for money, which, in a sense, is an ideological spin on the fees debate. And thirdly there are the so called ‘culture wars’.

Starting with the fees debate, then. I went to university just before the 2008 Financial Crisis as a mature student, and then came out of university after the crisis with a 2:1 in Philosophy when it was very difficult to get a decent job. So, I thought I’d ride out the crisis by doing a Masters in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, live in London for a bit. And then the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition government put the fees up to £9000 a year. That was basically day one of my course, and then you know, it all kicked off. I found myself in the middle of the student and anti-austerity movement, occupying, going to meetings, organising free universities and holding protests in government-owned banks etc. This was a huge political moment, which went on for a few months, and brought together university students with further education students – because the Coalition also cut the Education Maintenance Allowance – on the one hand, and the labour movement on the other. It was really exciting, with all of us fighting alongside each other. You really felt like it was going to make a difference. But it didn’t. And that’s something to reflect on in itself, especially I think for you guys, who are going to do this all over again now. Because I think it is going to, it’s got to explode in a similar way because it can’t see how it can’t. But we will come back to that.

Anyway, so I think this then set up the politics of higher education for the next decade. It was weird that nothing really happened, considering how much anger there was. Once the dust settled, it turned into a whole debate about the impact of the fees on the public debt and stuff like that. There was this whole debate about the non-repayment of loans and lots of really detailed work by people like Andrew McGettigan pointing out that fees and loans were basically gonna cost the public just as much as free higher education, because of how much is gonna get written off. And that kind of just kind of carried on for a bit. It wasn’t very political. It was all a bit ‘wonky’. But then Jeremy Corbyn changed everything. He politicised young people and promised free higher education for all, no matter what age. I think that transformed that debate because basically, Corbyn was a massive threat to the status quo, essentially preventing Theresa May – along with Brexit – from doing anything meaningful with higher education. To kick the can down the road, May commissioned a review into HE funding, which suggested that fees should be reduced to £7,250. As a promise to young people this was pretty just crap when you’ve got the opposition promising free HE, and only served to put universities into a panic, because it wasn’t clear how this shortfall would be met. But nothing happened with it, because all people cared about was Brexit for the next few years and then COVID came along.

Alongside this you’ve got this whole value for money debate, which I think has two sides to it. On the one hand you’ve got reactionary Tories saying that a degree doesn’t mean anything anymore because everyone’s going to university now. And then on the other hand you’ve got these legitimate concerns from working class kids about whether or not it’s worth going to university and taking on forty or fifty grand’s worth of debt. And also students are now actually paying for stuff up front, like accommodation, so these are now real concerns, not just the abstract debt of the loan that you might not pay off. But the Tories are using these legitimate concerns to attack higher education, to attack courses that are seen as not good value for money, like arts degrees, or whatever, on the basis that they aren’t going to get you a really fancy job afterwards, potentially. And so the Tories introduced all these frameworks and metrics that will then crunch the numbers and show students what courses and universities represent ‘value for money’. Their dream is have a system where, you know, a student will go online and look up studying English, and the internet will tell them, ‘well don’t study English, because it’s not going to get you a good job. Go and be an engineer or data analyst or whatever it is instead, something that is economically useful and will help you pay off the public debt.’ Meanwhile, rich people can still study English or Art of whatever because it’s not the university that gets them the job in the BBC or wherever, it’s their social networks. So basically, the Humanities becomes a class privilege. Like it used to be, really.

Finally, you have this culture war stuff, which is related to a real right-wing shift in society, but you know, within the Tory party in particular. Some of this comes from Brexit, and there’s also all this horrible crap about academics all being ‘woke left’ manipulators of young people and, you know, Students’ Unions not allowing people to talk about reactionary stuff because they’re all like snowflakes. Horrible, reactionary shit, basically. Essentially, this very conservative government wants things to be like they were in the old days. And so the government is using wider anxieties about social change to shut down debate.

ZL

I think I agree with like nearly all of that. I did a presentation on marketization in higher education earlier this year where I said a lot of similar stuff. But I think we’re a bit more interested in what is going to be a trigger for the student movement, like tuition fees in 2010, where everyone gets pissed off and smashes up Millbank. Do you think they might try and do something now like that that would galvanize everyone?

DR

Yes, interesting question. I mean, you never know what it’s gonna be. In retrospect, it’s obvious, because you can trace cause and effect it, but I think it’s always surprising what it is that that makes it all kick off. It might be that some things that that you think should spark it don’t, but then something weird has like a hugely outsized impact. But to answer this question, specifically, I don’t think there’s going to be something obvious. I think that the agenda is a little bit more insidious than that. From a staff perspective, it is definitely the closure of courses. Because that’s already happening, and the Liverpool strike is, I would say, the first skirmish in a kind of protracted war. And then I think the end game is about universities closing. This that I’ve been writing about over the last few years, that the future is a sector that has fewer universities in it, and they are bigger, which is basically what has happened in further education. Making universities into businesses has always been the Tory project. But I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about what that means. When the government goes on about free markets, the assumption is that it’s going to be entrepreneurial universities or like HE startups that challenge the old universities. But I think that isn’t really how markets work anyway.

In reality, the government is putting huge pressure on modern universities that have much larger intakes of working class and non-traditional students, and therefore can’t compete with elite universities on outcomes (i.e. the proportion who get first-class degrees and a traditional student experience). This pressure means that they either become super entrepreneurial businesses or go bust. And if they go bust, they will get swallowed up by the other universities that are entrepreneurial – including the Russel Group bunch that already have an advantage – which get bigger, and can then compete with universities like Oxford and Cambridge, who have no interest in all this market stuff. Because they don’t need to, they’ve got endowments, they’re hugely rich, they can continue to be elite, they will always have elite students, and blah, blah, blah. So the future is one where you have Oxbridge and these huge business universities hoovering up students, with really big, digitalized modern universities that are much more risk taking, setting up stuff all across the world. This is higher education as a commodity, like anything else. There’ll be John Lewis universities for the middle class and Amazon universities for the rest. And so the politics of higher education, for a lot of working class people, will be about what they can afford, or how much they can justify borrowing.

CM

From what I can tell, it seems that the thing that we’re gonna find more difficult is that the government will reduce fees, because that reduces the cost of higher education for them in the long term. So I’m wondering whether we should even prioritize fees as part of the struggle, because, to some extent, we’re gonna have to explain to students why reduction in fees is actually a bad thing for universities and get them angry about it. Which is like a weird thing, cuz that’s one of the things that we’ve been fighting for.

DR

I think you’ve got to be careful, because I don’t think they want to necessarily raise or lower fees or reduce the number of students going to university. I think there are two main factions within the ruling class that have different views and interests in relation to this issue. There are your hard conservatives who want higher education to look a lot more like it did in the old days, like they want everything to look like it did in the old days. Boris Johnson is part of that, or at least one part of him is, because he is a multi-faceted moron. You know, this whole UK plc shit. He wants to be Winston Churchill, he wants to make Britain great again by making the UK a regulation-free sweat shop and tax haven for the super-rich. It’s all part of that really reactionary, Bullingdon Club fantasy. But then there’s like the proper neoliberal part of the ruling class that isn’t interested in any of that, really, apart from its interested in the potential bonfire of regulation and the opening up of everything to capital. But it’s not really interested in making Britain great again. For this faction, higher education can get bigger and bigger and bigger, because that’s more opportunity to make money. But it’s got to be monetized.

The true neoliberal vision is to have variable fees. That’s always been the plan, going right back to David Willetts. He wanted to make HE into this very idealized fantasy of a market where you tweak a few things, and it sorts itself out. You make students into consumers, bring private providers in, deregulate, and it’ll all just come out in the wash. There’ll be this very open, dynamic and democratic system. But this never happened. Later university ministers like Jo Johnson were much more pragmatic. They understood that you have to intervene directly to make something happen. They use arms-length levers like the TEF and student league tables alongside increased state control measures, for example the Higher Education (Academic Freedom) Bill, and probably something similar to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which threatens to close colleges that don’t get behind the proposed private-sector driven local skills plans. So they basically use sticks and carrots to produce a future where the student chooses a course based on perceived value for money. The idea is that some courses will be cheap, because they don’t get you a good job. Some courses will be expensive, because they do. They provide what they call a ‘graduate premium’.

It’s all very reductive. They want students to be able to calculate what their investment should be based on what they might earn in the future. And this might all be simplified and symbolized maybe in a smiley face. The point is that the government wants you to be a HE consumer, to be able to look at that market and go: ‘Right I’d love to study philosophy, but I’m not gonna, because it’s not going to get me the job I want. And then I’m not going to be able to pay off my loan.’ So, getting back to your whole point about strategy, student finance is important because a lot of kids won’t get to do subjects they would like to. But the reasons for this are difficult to explain. It’s not an easy political sell, is it? You have to kind of go into all of this kind of weird system that they’re building. But do you see what I mean? I think I think it’s not that it’s going up or down. It’s what they’re trying to do with the whole thing is, which is scarier, because it’s very difficult to undo. And has implications for students and for staff alike.

CM

I’m just trying to think, is there anything that we can try and do to exploit this fracture between the factions of the ruling class? We hate them. Obviously. But trying to sow chaos between those two factions is like, a useful objective. And I’m just trying to think about our long-term political aims. We want to keep a more human version of higher education in people’s minds. And that’s something that we want to hopefully reflected in manifestos in the future.

ZL

Yeah, I’m just trying to wrap my head around what like you’re describing, I guess. Like I do understand it, but there are so many contradictions within that. How all this is borne out in the future is a very difficult thing to predict. On one hand, you’ve got Russell Group and Oxbridge unis becoming more elitist and retaining those degrees like Arts and Humanities that would have a lower market exchange value because they will still get you a good job, because of the status of the institution. Then you’ve got unis like Sheffield Hallam that just talk about employability and offer only degrees that the Tory government would see as being useful in the jobs market.

DR

Exactly. Russell Group universities will offer Humanities degrees because people will still buy them and because they want to be the kind of university that offers them, because you’ve got to remember that the university is now also a brand. I always loved this about Goldsmiths. They are a ‘radical’ university. The warden used to love it when we occupied stuff, because it was part of the Goldsmiths brand. And middle class and rich kids will get a job because they have a connection with an art gallery or in the broadcasting industry. But working-class people are also still going to want to these degrees. We can think about the wider world of consumption. Why do people want really expensive iPhones when they can get a cheaper Huawei that does the same job? In one sense, it’s a form of conspicuous consumption. But the real question is why working-class people want to buy something that they can’t afford, or maybe struggle to afford. It’s aspirational. Having a nice phone and nice clothes means you don’t have to feel poor, it’s a part of your material life you can control, even if it means getting into debt.

It’s all about changing people’s consciousness, the way they think. Once you’ve done that, it’s a big part of marketisation done. And they have been doing this for a decade or more and students are already thinking like this. So, it’s like, you don’t need a big set piece policy. Because the pieces are all there. They’ve been pulling these levers for years. In 2010 they set a lot of that groundwork. And all they’ve been doing since is basically tweaking the system.