Higher Learning

by Tom George Hammond

Between state entities and corporate interest lies marketisation; a system in which a public body has to act as a business and compete with an expanding private sector.  There are two pressing narratives of marketisation current within the United Kingdom; the fears that the NHS is in an existential crisis and will not last another four years of Conservative rule, and the University and College Union (UCU) strikes, where university staff are marching to protect their pay and their pensions.  The latter is a crisis which emerged from Conservative policy of 2011 and portrays how the Tories are able to silently disembowel a public service and leave it to the mercy of the private sector. 

Part of this consideration of marketisation is anecdotal, as I was in my third year of study at Warwick University when the UCU strikes of 2018 were first announced.  The conditions which led to the strikes are uniquely unfortunate, partly because Conservative policy has ensured that university students have never had to pay more for teachers who, within the last 10 years, have never been paid less.  There is a more immediate antagonist to the crisis in the form of Universities UK (UUK), the management collective attempting highly controversial reforms to the pensions of higher education staff.  Outside of teachers’ personal concern for an exceptionally devalued pension at the whims of market control, many higher education staff have expressed broader fears about the future of academia if the pursuing the profession is stripped of any financial benefit. 

The UCU strikes are a synecdoche for how higher education has become strangled by the reforms made by David Cameron’s government in 2011, but they are also embedded in the minutiae of pensions and wages and details that do not make for easy media discussion.  So the dryness (see the above para) of the discourse has stopped the strike from playing any real part in current political conversation.  But it is a crisis, albeit a quiet one.  There are now three for-profit private universities in the UK, including the University of Law, which is owned by Montagu Private Equity, first granted the official status as a university in 2012.  Public universities now have to compete with the instruments of private equity firms, resulting in a baffling number of state entities that have transformed themselves into benevolent corporations, complete with highly paid vice-chancellors and shiny new architecture and installations.  It is a metamorphosis so violent that it has caused universities in the UK to rack upwards of £12bn in debt since the 2009 financial crash, much of which originates from loans from the private sector.  Although universities are major contributors to the UK economy, to view the institutions in purely economic terms feels unfortunate.  The emphasis of these institutions and their students is now not on higher learning but on the achievement of specific academic targets in order for them to appear more attractive to prospective employers in a crowded job market. 

British universities would not be in this crisis, where students became both consumers and products, without the government reforms that hiked up tuition fees, granted university status to non-profit ventures owned by private equity firms, and subjected institutions to needless quotas and performance evaluations such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  The crisis is multi-faceted.  Universities now rely on tuition fees as their principle source of funding, meaning many have sought a huge uptake of students, which in turn leads to further crowding of graduates in the employment market and stretches teaching resources.  This causes teaching wages for those in higher education to face heavy cuts and for universities to increasingly have to employ PHD students and younger faculty members on temporary contracts for very low pay.  Now UUK pension reforms threaten to remove the financial security for anyone working in higher education at public institutions, meaning that for-profit ventures will attract academics hoping to escape from the financial strain of the public sector.  This bitter chain is written in the ink of marketisation, but is the natural conclusion of state entities having to adopt the guise of private business.

Universities are not ‘for sale’, in any official sense, but any institution that cannot rely on the sale of public bonds can only turn to private investment, such as from Pricoa Capital, which has now loaned £750m to British universities within the last three years.  An institution that is technically public could become increasingly reliant on investment from a very small number of typically U.S based private equity firms without there ever being an official moment of privatisation.  This policy of masking marketisation in austerity policy has one crucial benefactor; a public who have come to expect failure in public services.  In this current election campaign, one party is actively encouraging voters to ask more from the state, but party lines about “magic money trees” and “fantasy economics” have been so subtly and convincingly sold to the casual voter that any proposal of state-subsidized reforms to the public sector are met with doubt and suspicion.  What will ultimately kill public services is low expectation, and a belief that state entities can only be saved by comprehensive investment by the private sector.