Campaigning Against the Marketisation of Higher Education in England

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2019 Higher Education Service Group Conference
19 September 2018

Higher education as a public service has been and is increasingly under threat from profit-driven vultures encouraged by an ideological obsession that dictates that private interests should always triumph over common ownership and cooperation.

Attempts by the current and previous governments to introduce market forces and competition into the public services is nothing new to all sections of the public sector. This is largely driven by a requirement to cut state financial investment in the services on which we all rely, and the desire for private companies to seek new industries in which to make healthy financial returns.

The current review of post-18 education, due to report in early 2019, is likely to propose measures which will drive higher education institutions further apart, potentially linking tuition fee values to measures of “quality”, and creating further funding crises in some institutions.

There are lucrative profits to be made in cleaning and catering contracts, provided it is possible to drive down the terms and conditions of the workforce and remove current and/or future employees from national pay bargaining or existing pension schemes. Large and small commercial enterprises are now much more inclined to invest in public contracts to provide services, where cash-flow is pretty much guaranteed, than make risky investments with a smaller chance of a return.

University leaders are increasingly being forced down the road of seeing themselves as in competition with each other. This is driven by a funding mechanism which is designed to accentuate the differences between institutions. Those perceived to be the best universities compete over prestigious research contracts whilst institutions at the other end of the league tables compete with each other over clearing students, since these numbers dictate income levels on a year by year basis.

This funding system is inevitably fragile, being subject to the number of potential students, which is based on demographic fluctuations and the willingness of thousands of young people to build up colossal debts with no guarantee of quality jobs. The removal of a cap on recruitment at a given university means that if the more prestigious universities intend to grow, and there is some evidence to show that this is happening, then the less well regarded institutions will struggle to fill places, posing the issue of campus and/or course closures, asset-stripping or total institutional failure.

Marketisation is having two major effects on universities where Vice Chancellors are reacting to the situation.

1)Institutions experiencing or forecasting a decline in student numbers are cutting costs, closing courses and trying to reducing salary bills by attacking pension schemes.

2)Greater competition for students means significant investment into marketing, which diverts funds away from teaching and research and into selling the “student experience” to potential students – some with little chance of academic success – for multiple reasons.

The effect of this trend on our union is that battles to defend members’ rights are likely to be increasingly localised and victories will be significant only where branches have strong and determined leaderships, able to raise the confidence of members to fight.

Conference further notes:

The prospect of an end to the marketisation trend was raised, at least in part, by the Labour election manifesto of 2017, which promised to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants.

This was an enormously popular policy, which was a breath of fresh air to young people and higher education workers, who supported Corbyn’s policies wholeheartedly. This also chimed with UNISON’s position of total opposition to tuition fees and for fully funded universities.

Whilst abolition of fees would not in itself mean the end of marketisation, if appropriate state funding is provided, it would be a significant step in the right direction of returning the higher education system to one which provides a universal education service for those wanting to take advantage of it, and provide quality research for the benefit of all society.

Conference Calls on the Higher Education Service Group Executive:

a)To make sure that UNISON’s policy on higher education is clear to all by making it prominent on the national website and in all relevant material.

b)To lobby Labour Link and all appropriate bodies to ensure that the next Labour manifesto commits a future Corbyn-led government to abolish fees and fund higher education adequately, through a system of progressive funding which guarantees all jobs and existing terms and conditions of higher education workers.

c)To give full practical and material support to all higher education branches and members fighting the effects of marketisation.