Some thoughts on a summer announcement that feels like a very long time ago

bridge over river in city

The ministerial announcement on the Restructuring Regime back in July offers very little of substance in stabilising Higher Education in the UK, and instead reinforces the ideological obsession for education to be driven by market forces.

Restructuring typically means cuts. Cuts in education, do not benefit students and do not benefit local economies.  We have seen a sector over the last decade have strict widening participation targets and a slow drift towards more work to retain students, however the marketised model of recruiting “bums on seats” no doubt is a stronger financial driver as universities compete over a demographic dip in 18 year olds.

In order to protect the welfare of students and quality of education, universities are now being told by the Government not to just make cuts in response to extraordinary market conditions, but where and how.  This is an extraordinary intervention, using a global pandemic to dictate to supposedly independent institutions where they should focus their teaching and to link it more than ever to ‘employable’ outcomes.  How can the government insist on maintaining academic freedom while spearheading attacks on that stated objective?

The sector has seen a huge expansion in the last decade, in part driven by international student recruitment and at home with long term policies to encourage more school leavers to consider higher education; and more recently raising tuition fees for unlimited student numbers.  Universities are complex communities – not everyone is a teacher, not everyone is a researcher, not everyone is a student, not everyone is in a professional services role.  All of these roles, and more, create vibrant, unique and diverse communities.

As there has quite rightly been a focus on recruiting students from widening participation backgrounds, so teaching and pastoral support needs become more complex.  The same can be said with international students that face additional cultural and language barriers.  To suggest stripping back of “bureaucracy” and “allowing academics to focus on the front-line” ignores the already huge workloads and range of experience that academics have – and not all are necessarily teachers.  The suggestion of reducing bureaucracy from government and regulators is a worrying sign of attacking roles that seek to support students rather than roles that largely exist to make money, for example in preparing for the Research Excellence Framework.  There is still a drive towards profit-making objectives including variable fees and breaking the promise to widen participation.

Next, we see an attack on student unions whereby the Government asserts that “the funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.”   Student campaigns are fundamental to academic freedom and there’s a huge track record internationally on what are initially niche campaigns are now mainstream rights we all enjoy.  Is a BLM student society potentially a ‘niche’ campaign activity because the number of BAME students is generally low on campuses?  Of course not!  It is comparing apples and pears to pitch student union funding alongside excessive vice chancellor and senior executive pay.  

Further education, adult education and sixth form colleges all need proper funding for the crucial role they play in local communities.  The Restructuring Regime hints at HE and FE providers potentially merging – that is still a cut for both sectors.  You cannot ‘help’ FE by cutting HE.

The government is right in looking forward to reflecting on what the future of all post-18 education will look like in 2030.  We need education fit for all adults, that is free and accessible to all, that raises aspirations and builds communities.  Not further privatisation, cuts and marketisation.  

And it’s student campaigns that can fight for the education they want.  That’s not a niche now is it?

Jon Benson is the Director of Business Development and Risk Management at Campaigns for Students.

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