UK’s model for funding higher education is a ‘broken system’

Most politicians don’t understand the cost of living crisis, because ‘they have never had to face it’, UNISON’s HE conference is told

UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards opened the national higher education conference yesterday with a damning critique of the government’s approach towards university education, and of ministers who are out of touch with the crisis affecting so many of the country’s population.

“We meet at yet another really difficult time in higher education,” Mr Richards, who was once the union’s head of education, told delegates. “We’ve had a continued funding crisis for years, but it’s becoming particularly acute. The funding models across the UK seem to be broken.

“The English model of fees, particularly, is causing huge problems for both students and universities, forcing the former into massive debts and leaving the universities with massive budget problems.

“The government has its favourite sort of privatisation, of using fees, but then it holds them at £9,000 and won’t fill the gap with funding, making it ever harder for universities to deliver the services that they think they need to do.

“But it’s not just an England problem, because of limited government funding across the whole of the UK.”

The effect was a “de facto” cap on home student numbers, while “this xenophobic government has trashed our reputation in Europe” leading to big drops in overseas students, which was once a guaranteed source of university income.

At the same time, Mr Richards said, the chancellor was repeating mistakes of a decade ago to create “austerity mark 2”, which was fuelling the cost of living crisis.

On the crisis, he noted the number of prime ministers and others from “the leading echelons of public society” who had attended Oxford University, via public schools.

“And the problem is, we have a cost of living crisis which they don’t understand, because they never had to face it. Not all of them, but the vast majority of politicians have never been through something like this. Few of them know what it’s like to go to a food bank, few of them know what it’s like to make a choice between heating or eating.

“And that’s why their focus is on tax cuts and not an improvement on benefits, and not an improvement on the vital public services which you and others we represent deliver.”

UNISON’s cost of living campaign was making it clear that “poverty is a government choice”, while also linking the impact of low pay on services, he said.

“We’ve reinforced in the public’s mind that unions are an intrinsic part of the workforce defending our public services. Attempts by the government in the past few months to portray us as ‘nasty unions’ have flopped badly.”

Mr Richards saw other positives, including the way that UNISON had been learning from its industrial action ballots, and the strikes themselves, to adapt its strategies moving forward – for example, when to employ shorter or targeted strikes, or action short of strike, and when to re-ballot, or not. The union was also improving engagement with its members.

Finally, Mr Richards welcomed the union’s growing membership in recent months, including over 1,200 members in higher education last year.

“It’s not all down to the strike, nonetheless it’s activity which is making people interested in us, because we’ve been in the public battle. So, this is a testament to the work you’ve done. You’re the backbone of our union. Our collective strength sits in this hall.”