In the biggest shake-up to the university sector since grants were introduced in 1962, the government is tripling fees and cutting funding to teaching budgets by £3.2 billion. This includes a 100 per cent reduction for the arts, humanities and social sciences, in effect privatising their teaching. Universities that cannot ‘compete’ for high enough student numbers will have to close. The changes mark a significant step in the transformation of higher education into a commodity subject to the whims of the market.
The government claims these plans won’t affect participation, that the cuts are ‘fair and progressive’, and that they make social and economic sense. Should we believe them? Of course not. And our lie-busting low-down reveals why:
MYTH: The fee rises and public funding cuts to universities are fair – graduates should pay for their university education, not everybody else
The coalition argues that since graduates are the main beneficiaries of a degree, it is fair that they should pay for that degree. The structured repayment scheme for students has even led to claims that these plans are ‘progressive’.
However, the idea of the public ‘funding’ higher education through taxes is something of a myth. In reality, university graduates actually provide a profit for businesses and taxpayers through higher income tax contributions. Statistics from the OECD show the net profit from funding a graduate, recouped through social contributions and tax, averages £56,000 over a lifetime. It is true that under the tiered debt repayment plans people on higher incomes would pay a greater proportion of their fees than those who are poorer. But the focus on repayment plans deliberately dodges the issue that taking on up to £50,000 in debt is a massive psychological disincentive that will be felt most keenly by poor‑to-middle-income families.
Many of the cuts proposed by the government are unlikely to actually save any money, and higher education is a case in point. Despite currently being funded with a comparatively very low 1.3 per cent of the governmental budget, universities employ 2.6 per cent of the country’s workforce and generate 2.3 per cent of GDP (figures from Universities UK). The cuts to universities will cause significant job losses and some institutions will go bust. These redundancies cost money in the short-term, and welfare costs will also rise.
Meanwhile, money saved in subsidising courses and research will be required to fund the massive expansion in lending. The Higher Education Policy Institute recently concluded that the government will be spending so much on increased student loans that increased fees will not save any public money.
Universities in the UK receive far less funding than in most OECD countries, which have higher levels of student numbers. Student numbers (currently around 36 per cent of young people) are higher than previously but similar increases have taken place across all OECD countries in recent decades. Britain has below‑average participation levels overall, ranking below Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (Education at a Glance 2010, OECD).
Vice-chancellors have been complaining for many years about underfunding, and until recently their target was the government. This is because the government has been spending a modest 1.3 per cent of GDP on higher education. This compares with an OECD average of 1.5 per cent. The United States, despite huge contributions by individuals, spends 3.1 per cent; Canada, South Korea, France and Scandinavian countries also spend substantially larger proportions of public money on universities.
Neither student numbers nor public spending on higher education in the UK are at unsustainable levels. If anything, targets for public spending on higher education and levels of university participation should be increased.
Fee rises have been introduced to substitute for massive cuts in public funding, not to improve university performance. The proposed enormous higher education budget cuts will clearly damage UK universities, not help them.
The coalition’s disregard for the well-being of educational institutions is most apparent in arts, humanities and social sciences, for which it has decided to virtually discontinue its financial support. The government’s reforms entail a shift of the burden for university funding from the public budget onto students. But British universities will continue to require financial support to maintain and increase the impact of their research, and their appeal when it comes to research contracts and international students. Students’ university fees will simply not cover the costs in some departments, irrespective of their research standing. The tripling of university fees is ‘necessary’ to safeguard standards only because of this government’s refusal to subsidise higher education as a public good.
The government, backed up by vice-chancellors from the 20 Russell Group universities, denies that the huge increase in fees will deter potential students from university. They claim that increases in student numbers since the 2006/7 introduction of top-up fees is evidence to the contrary.
Closer analysis of the impact of top-up fees, however, reveals a decline in participation precisely from those eligible to pay them. Poorer students (those below the median household income) paid no increase in cost or in debt levels due to the introduction of grants up to nearly £3,000 alongside more bursaries.
The numbers of students who did experience these rises in fees, those from the four higher social classes, declined from 43.8 per cent to 40.6 per cent (BIS, The Impact of Higher Education Finance on University Participation in the UK, September 2010) in the year of the increase. Even looking at families most able to pay the £1,800 increases in fees there was still a significant reduction in access, despite the doubling of available loans. Students could borrow to pay these fees, yet they were still deterred from entering higher education – this shows that fees, even in the form of debt, negatively affect access. Increases of up to £6,000 on top of these levels are therefore certain to hit participation levels very significantly.
There is no equivalent package to that introduced in 2006/7 to lessen the impact of these new changes or protect prospective students from the huge increase in debt. A tiny £150 million (coming from scrapping free school meals) will be spent on new scholarships for the very poorest.
While 36 per cent of students go to university, there is vast inequality in the student population. 19 per cent of young people from the least advantaged fifth of the population go to university compared to 57 per cent from the most advantaged (Office for Fair Access, Fair Access Report, 2010).
Although this is actually a marked improvement since the 1990s, the 20 most selective institutions have not increased their percentage intake from the least advantaged areas at all over the same time period. The increases that have taken place are almost entirely in former polytechnics and others outside of the Russell Group universities.
The government’s near-privatisation of university education, and the ensuing ‘competition’ envisioned by Lord Browne, is expected to promote the expansion of some universities while allowing others to close. The institutions that will suffer the most will be those outside the core of the existing big, well-funded institutions – precisely those that young people from poorer backgrounds would attend. Moreover, the evidence shows that any system of bursaries and loans has little positive impact on the likelihood of poorer students applying to and attending more selective universities, so the new scholarships are unlikely to address any of these inequalities.
The government’s statements on higher education cuts are designed to provide bland reassurance. They mask a brutal attack on university education as a public good. We cannot allow them to be its epitaph.
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself