The crisis in higher education: hindsight and 2020

Gargi Bhattacharyya reflects on the state of UK universities a decade on from the student uprisings in 2010

November 25, 2020 · 7 min read
2010 Student Protests Students protest cuts to higher education in 2010

It feels a bit laughable to talk about the future of higher education in Britain in the present moment. I mean, have you been paying attention to Britain lately? An unbearably high Covid-19 mortality rate, a chaotic (or malign) disorganisation of testing and care planning, a scary contraction of the economy only weeks before a hard Brexit that can no longer be mentioned in public – all on top of endemic poverty which will only worsen in the coming months. It is hard, in this context, to think too seriously about universities. A society in freefall has other more urgent priorities, surely?

But that is the task, and who knows? Perhaps the sad state of British universities may allow us to reflect on the fracturing of so much of British society. We on the left anticipated some of this fracturing a decade ago – it brings no joy to be proved right yet again. 

For all the energy and righteous anger against the imposition of fee increases in 2010, I now wonder if we slightly misread what was happening. Faced with the prospect of life-changing levels of debt for all except those with the means to pay upfront, we argued against such a high cash price on the principle that it would be yet another barrier to accessing higher education. Yet in the intervening years, we have seen a modest increase in students undertaking degrees, including growing numbers of those from areas of multiple disadvantage. Rising fees did not stop people going to university. What they did was shift the cost of the university sector away from the state and onto students, with a marginally increased proportion of them from less advantaged households now effectively subsidising a system that has continued to reward the most advantaged. 

In retrospect, the slight rise in student numbers looks predictable. We knew already that racially minoritised groups had high rates of participation in higher education; as Britain became a country where increasing proportions of young adults were black, brown and/or migrant, perhaps it was predictable that campuses would if anything reflect these trends. However, other trends have been reflected in tandem. Drop-out rates for full-time students from low participation areas (i.e. more disadvantaged areas) remain higher than overall; the BAME attainment gap is only recently experiencing widespread recognition, and it’s clear that not everyone who reaches university gains automatic access to the much-touted promises of higher education, as either ‘the best years of your life’ or as a guarantee of a lifetime of middle-class security.

The public and the pandemic

The combination of accelerated attacks on staff conditions on the one hand, and increasingly shrill defences of practices related to re-opening campuses in a pandemic on the other, is leading to an unexpected convergence. Staff unions across the sector are engaging in very public disagreements with management handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Every day more branches are issuing votes of no confidence and balloting for industrial action. The behaviour of university managements and, more importantly, of student accommodation, has become a matter of national concern. Almost without anyone noticing, vice-chancellors – who until recently were invisible sponges of resources immune from the shaming of the public sphere – have joined the cast of pantomime villains. 

Naturally, much of the UK media frame this as ‘all higher education is a wasteful scam run by entitled buffoons with no understanding of real life’. I don’t pretend this represents a groundswell against the poor employment practices of the sector. It is, however, an indication that universities have re-entered the mainstream of popular debate. The pandemic reminds us that universities are embedded in our localities, as destinations and sites of exchange for thousands. Our staff work alongside these crowds. What is interesting about the conversations sparked by this avoidable campus crisis, however, is that they go beyond issues of student safety to look more broadly at what welfare and wellbeing can or should mean for all staff and students.

Covid-19 highlights, in ways that most campaigning up to this point did not, the consequences and costs of marketised higher education. For this first time on a grand scale, home students have complained publicly of being used as cash-cows for universities (joining a protest theme established by international students for many years). The prevailing business model adopted by universities – with halls of residence central to maintaining cash flow and forming a major element of income, in conjunction with the need to nail down fee-paying students and to extract those fees quickly – is now widely understood. The fact that these  scurrilous practices arise from the imposition of a funding regime designed to keep most universities in a state of constant uncertainty makes little difference to the public monstering under way. The wider public are seeing our bosses for the first time, and they don’t like what they see.

What this means in real terms for staff and students has yet to be determined. Covid-19 has changed the terms and pattern of trade union organising and alliance-building: unexpectedly, universities may represent something larger about the next phase of workplace organising. The increasingly diffused university workplace lends itself to further casualisation, providing a visible pathway for further precaritisation recognisable in other sectors. 

Battling for survival

So far, employers have relied on staff concern for students to push through all sorts of ill-considered and unsustainable processes. Things are changing, however. UCU strike action in recent years has already signalled a shift among university staff. Once staff have taken industrial action for the first time, they are more likely to do so again. If they truly fear for their health and lives, or the health and lives of their students and loved ones, who knows what members might push their unions to do?

Whether we like it or not, we seem to be coming to the end of one chapter in the marketisation experiment in higher education. The product has been changed by factors beyond our control and, as a result, the books cannot be made to balance. Maybe university managements will stretch it out for this year, but who will fall for the rent-scam next year? Who will be willing to risk yet further debt as another great recession progresses?

Which brings us back, of course, to fees. The fee model of education is driving the collapse of many UK universities, and not only those serving poorer communities. The disruption of Covid-19 pushes already unstable modes of operation to the brink: if students decide that some locations and institutions and halls of residence are no longer desirable or trustworthy, a range of institutions may find themselves struggling to meet day-to-day operating costs. If we want to retain these institutions in any meaningful sense, something has to give – and that has to mean abolishing fees once and for all. The uncomfortable question now is: does Boris Johnson’s Britain even want higher education any more?

Gargi Bhattacharyya is a sociology professor and author of Rethinking Racial Capitalism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018)

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