The battle for higher education

The rising discontent of students and university workers that has been brought to a head during the pandemic presages a broader questioning of the role of higher education in an era of globalised neo-liberal capitalism, argues BEA GARDNER.

University workers and students are concluding that a fundamental shift is needed in how universities are funded and organised, including ending the marketisation of higher education which has proliferated in the neo-liberal era that followed the end of the long post-war boom.

The neo-liberal agenda pioneered by Margaret Thatcher and the US president Ronald Reagan, and given added impetus by the ideological triumphalism of capitalism that followed the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe from the late-1980s, included the deregulation of markets, cutting public expenditure, privatising state-run goods and services, and replacing the idea of collective or public goods with the notion of individual responsibility. This agenda has had multiple, interrelated impacts on universities, affecting the models on which the sector is organised as well as the character of those participating within it.

Firstly was the process of marketisation, leading to the emergence of a higher education marketplace in Britain and globally, based on universities directly competing for their share of students and research funding.  

The impact was not confined to the UK student population. The targeting of overseas students for recruitment has become a key strategy for income generation in many universities, as the demand for higher education in the Middle East and South Asia especially grew rapidly from the 1990s.

Unlike for ‘home’ students there is no cap on the maximum chargeable tuition fees for international students, meaning that students from oversees contribute a high proportion of fee income. For example, in 2018-19 one in five students studying at a UK university was an international student, but the higher rate of fees charged meant that they contributed 37% of total fee income. For some universities, especially those with a strong enough ‘brand’ to justify charging the highest fees, this was much more; at University College London (UCL) international students account for 65% of their fee income.

Additionally, over the last few decades there has also been a substantial rise in the number of overseas campuses set up to offer ‘UK degrees’. These campuses are often entirely privately-financed and run for profit. They are seen by university bosses as a critical entry point to new student markets, allowing them to grow the university brand while further increasing fee income at reduced running costs. Overseas campuses have also provided opportunities for universities to mirror wider trends toward ‘offshoring’. For example, Middlesex University is reported to have saved 25% on staffing by directing admissions and IT queries to offices based in India.

Moreover, the promotion of UK higher education in the global market also plays an ideological role for British capitalism because studying at UK universities, whether on campuses here or abroad, is a tool for wielding so-called ‘soft power’. By exploiting the intellectual brand of the UK higher education sector, the British capitalist class hopes to establish new trading links and even influence international relations through the growing international alumina of former UK graduates.

Universities, then, play an important role for the capitalist ruling class by reproducing and promoting its dominant ideas and values. But the replication of dominant ideas is not a new function of universities under capitalism, even if the more ideologically brazen neo-liberal approach to universities contrasts with the way that the aims of higher education were presented in the post-war period which preceded it.

The post-war era

Before the second world war, in 1938, there were just 9,311 students who obtained a first degree at university. After the war, under the pressure of the working class demanding the right to education at all levels, there was some expansion of higher education including degree access schemes by the Clement Atlee 1945-51 Labour government for those who had served in the armed forces. And in the 1960s there was a major expansion with numbers attaining a first degree at university doubling in seven years to reach 51,189 by 1970. 

Such investment was acquiesced to by the ruling class, against the backdrop of the long post-war economic boom, as something that could contribute to economic growth and more generally higher cultural standards which would enable British capitalism to compete with other highly developed nation states during an era of rapid technological and social advances. In comparison, many individual capitalists and capitalist politicians today insist that the main role of universities should be to contribute directly and immediately to economic productivity, with an emphasis on graduate employability.

This was not the stated approach of the Robbins Report of 1963, the result of the government-commissioned Committee on Higher Education chaired by Lord Robbins, which endorsed many of the changes already taking place including the building of new universities. The report established the ‘Robbins principle’ that higher education places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”, with state subsidies to allow for ‘equality of opportunity’. Local education authorities were instructed to cover the fees of eligible students as well as pay them a maintenance grant to cover the cost of living expenses. Consequently, for the first time, access to a university education was no longer limited to those with the financial means to pay for it.

The Robbins Report agreed that higher education objectives should include “instruction in skills” but in such a way as to promote “the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women”. This is a contrast with the current emphasis on employability linked to graduate earnings over academic quality, with university rankings including a metric based on the percentage of students in work after graduation.

Additionally, according to Robbins, research and teaching were to be maintained in balance with each other, “since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth”. To achieve that balance, a staff to student ratio of one to eight was considered optimum. Now staff to student ratios are commonly at least double that and teaching staff are frequently tasked with delivering content to large cohorts of students in packed lecture halls.

A driver for the separation of teaching from research that has taken place is the need for universities to increasingly orientate around activities generating the most income. In 2018/19 international student fees brought in more income than funding grants and contracts. Hence, as explained, university managements have expanded operations associated with attracting greater student (and particularly overseas student) numbers. Meanwhile, academic staff are only able to carry out research if they win additional funding to cover for their time outside of the lecture hall or, alternatively, do this work in their ‘own time’, contributing to the excessive workloads in the sector.

But while reflecting the pressure of the labour movement for full and free education for all at every level, it is also true that Robbins and the 1960s expansion still preserved the elite character of universities compared to polytechnics and other further and higher education institutions. The binary system division of funding and prestige between universities and other institutions maintained the class divisions in society, playing its role in helping to ensure the rule of capital.

From Thatcher to Blair

Another principle of higher education promoted by Robbins was institutional autonomy from both state and ‘private interests’. Therefore, although universities began to receive most of their funding from the state, the principle of academic freedom was defended, meaning the right of science and learning to develop without external direction or influence. While universities continued to receive private endowments, there was a culture of academic oversight in the governance and decision-making of universities, a situation which a layer of senior academic staff today crave a return to.

Because this is, again, very different to the current situation. Academic oversight has been displaced by senior management boards prioritising income surplus generation over academic or scientific discovery. Universities are actively encouraged to be ‘business-facing’ and university-industry collaboration is dominant in a range of subject disciplines. Additionally, state funding is not guaranteed but comes only with various qualifying criteria.

Collaboration with industry is not inherently harmful, and neither, of course, is accountability for the receipt of public funds. However, when the goal of research is determined by profit demands, be that in the form of surplus generation for the university, profit for big business, or a narrow emphasis on short-term economic goals, longer-term innovation and discovery is threatened. The celebrated physicist Peter Higgs, for example, has stated that under the current system no university would have employed him as he would not be considered productive enough.

But the differences in the approach of the ruling class toward universities in the post-war era in comparison with today are explained by the economic and social contexts of the periods as well as the interests and requirements of capitalism in each period.

For example, the equilibrium of high state funding yet with limited regulation and interference was only possible in the context of the post-war economic boom, a period during which the workers’ movements made many gains generally. Beginning with the end of the long post-war upswing however, as with other state funded services, universities were subject to spending cuts, accompanied by an ideological campaign to provide ‘better value for money’.

In this context of reduced funding, and lured by the possibilities of an US-style private system, the vice-chancellors of the most prestigious universities actively campaigned in the 1990s and 2000s to charge their own fees to secure greater income to become ‘internationally competitive’. The university bosses never got the unlimited cap on UK student fees that they campaigned for, but the introduction of tuition fees for home students in 1998, under the New Labour government of Tony Blair, was nevertheless a key marking point.

The ‘war on universities’

While emphasising these broad trends in the approach of British capitalism toward universities in the post-war and neoliberal eras, it is important to say that this does not mean that the general interests of the British capitalist class always align with the ideological requirements of their political representatives in government. Indeed, contradictions frequently exist between the immediate political requirements of capitalist governments and the interests of the different sections of the capitalist class.

For example, the university bosses were firmly pro-remain in the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union (EU), not least for economic reasons given the proportion of income associated with EU student fees and European funding and grants. Under the terms of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement Brexit deal, EU students are now charged the same fee level as international students, contributing to a 50% slump in the number of EU students accepting places on undergraduate courses in the UK.

Similarly, the development of a global market for UK higher education goes against the rhetoric of clamping down on immigration, a divide-and-rule strategy of successive capitalist governments. Different home secretaries from New Labour to the Conservative-Liberal coalition have targeted international students as part of a ‘hostile environment’, introducing stricter visa requirements and clamping down on international recruitment practices. As home secretary Theresa May came under fire from business leaders and the treasury for overseeing the first fall in international student numbers for 30 years due to more restrictive visa requirements.

The most recent example of conflicting priorities between government and university bosses’ centres around the so-called ‘culture wars’. Ministers’ speeches have attacked universities for being ‘elitist’, failing to offer ‘value for money’ to students, and for failing to ‘promote freedom of speech’. In part this represents a concern that representatives of the ruling class have lost authority on campuses, especially among students. More immediately this rhetoric represents the current Tory administration’s attempts to shore up a section of their electoral base including their own supporters in the Tory Party.

However, there is far from a consensus within the British ruling class over the role of universities in the post-Brexit and post-pandemic era. This is reflected in current Tory divisions, with the former universities minister Jo Johnson – the brother of Boris Johnson – stating that ‘university-scepticism’ was the ‘new euro-scepticism’ in the Tory party. The widely reported disputes between Number Ten, the Department for Education, and the Treasury, over which measures to adopt in the long-waited report into higher education funding, reveals the conflicting pressures on a weak government.

The coming crunch

It is too early to say if the opponents of a continued market-based expansion of higher education will prevail. However, there is a funding crisis in higher education that governments in coming years will be under increased pressure from various sides to resolve. Under the current student loan repayment terms, student debt is forecast to hit £560 billion (in 2019-20 prices) by the middle of the century, growing at over £10 billion a year, with the prediction being that the treasury will be forced to write off 54% of these loans. The question of who pays for this debt will be a key battleground, with a favoured option of government, university bosses and big business being to make students pay a greater share through increased loan repayments at a lower minimum income threshold and over a longer period.

But the debt crisis is just one component. Without investment in staffing and facilities universities cannot indefinitely continue the trajectory of expansion and surplus generation. Again, this poses the question of who pays. Tuition fees have been capped at around £9,000 for nearly a decade. When inflation is considered, this is a real term decline in funding. Universities have already reduced costs by driving down staffing through outsourcing and introducing various forms of insecure contracts. Wages have fallen in universities in real terms by more than 20% in the last decade and research by the University and College Union (UCU) has found, on average, that academic staff carry out 15 hours of unpaid work a week.

However, the resistance of staff and students to these measures places limits on what university bosses can get away with, without provoking a backlash. In many ways, the university has become a new terrain of class struggle and university workers have turned to the methods of the organised working class to fightback.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2018, 66% of working days lost to strike action were in the education sector and the majority of these were due to the 14-day Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension strike which at that time was the longest-running strike in UK higher education history. At her speech to the 2021 UCU congress, the general secretary Jo Grady announced that the UCU had successfully balloted more branches for industrial action than any other union during the pandemic. At the time of writing, the UCU is taking the first UK-wide strike action since the start of the pandemic, albeit on a disaggregated basis, and other campus unions, including Unison, are balloting to join the action.

When it comes to a student fightback, the pandemic exposed the overcrowding of campuses along with the scandalous accommodation fees charged to further bolster university income. While the strength of the student movement has yet to reach the levels seen in the opposition to the tripling of student tuition fees in 2010, the rent strike movement last year and widespread support for the UCU strikes is an indicator of how this could further develop.

It remains the case that the student movement is severely limited by the weaknesses of the National Union of Students (NUS), which many local student unions have disaffiliated from in recent years. However, it is significant that the NUS has now called a student strike in the spring, and it cannot be ruled out that it could once again become a vehicle for student struggle. There is also the possibility of new formations and groupings emerging outside of the NUS, but whatever the specific organisational form the need for national organisation of students will be critical.

Towards an alternative

Through their experiences, many university workers and students are drawing the conclusion that to resolve the immediate issues confronting them a fundamental change in how universities are run is needed, including ending the marketisation model. However, far less clear is the vision for what should replace it and how this could be achieved.

There are those who seek a return to university as it was in the post-war era. Certainly, the conditions experienced then are understandably appealing to an overworked and undervalued academic community, as well as for students charged high fees and rent with no government grants to support them through their studies. However, as explained earlier, universities themselves were still only open to a small minority of the population – with an overall participation rate in higher education of just 8.4% in 1970, compared to 33% in 2000 – and the investment in higher education then was only sustainable on the basis of the not to be repeated post-war boom.

Nevertheless, the policies in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos of ending tuition fees and reintroducing teaching grants and student bursaries would have been a significant step towards opening up free higher education for all. They were hugely popular, especially among people. In fact, under pressure following the so-called ‘youthquake’ in the 2017 general election, the then Tory prime minister Theresa May increased the threshold for student loan repayments – even though this exacerbated student debt in the long term – in the hope that convincing young people they would never have to pay back their loans could win them over to her party.

As it is, the policy of free education has been firmly abandoned by Labour under Sir Keir Starmer despite his pledge during the 2020 Labour Party leadership election to maintain it. None of the major political parties have free education in their programmes. University workers and students need a political vehicle which can raise and fight for this demand.

However, even if tuition fees were abolished, if university funding decisions were left in the hands of a pro-capitalist government, we would still need to fight for funding which covers the actual costs of teaching and for living student grants, so students don’t live on poverty bursaries as they did in the past. Additionally, to ensure that funding is allocated according to staff and student needs, such decisions cannot be left in the hands of university bosses. Universities instead need to be run democratically by elected committees of staff, students, and workers’ representatives.

Under a socialist economic system, the wealth and the means of producing wealth currently in the hands of the capitalist class could be used to meet the needs of the majority, including providing free education and long-term research funding for universities.