Did I miss something here? Check out the following sequence of events, and then tell me if it establishes anything other than the fact that Britain’s Tory-led coalition government is so blinded by its enthusiasm for sweeping ideological change that ministers have failed to think about the implications of their policies, and have done so to such an extent that they end up giving the impression that they are incompetent amateurs, who don’t have a clue what they are doing, and are unfit to govern.
When, in autumn, the government announced huge cuts to university teaching budgets, leading to the doubling or trebling of fees from the current rate of £3,290 a year to anywhere between £6,000 and £9,000 a year, the first casualty was the integrity of the Liberal Democrats, who had made an election promise that they would explicitly oppose a rise in tuition fees — a broken promise from which the party may never recover.
A second casualty was the apathy of British youth — a problem that appeared to coincide with the 13 years of the New Labour project, and which, anecdotally, I have always referred to as the effects of Tony Blair’s “psychic cosh,” which also silenced the critical inclinations of citizens of all ages — as 50,000 students and schoolchildren (as well as tutors and support staff) took to the streets of London in November to protest, surprising both the government and the police.
Along the way, the Poll Tax Riot was resuscitated (almost as some kind of racial memory), and the protests continued into December, cementing the return of large-scale dissent to the British streets, and the return of oppositional politics, and revealing that, unlike in times past, much of that opposition came from the people rather than from anyone associated with the Labour Party.
In the end, sadly, the government won the vote on tuition fees, by just 21 votes, and the students were unable to maintain the momentum of their campaign — although an untold number were radicalized by their experiences. That was in December, and since then, behind the scenes, universities have either been lobbying the government to rethink its plans, or have begun working out how to adapt in light of the radical changes.
To understand the predicament facing the universities, it is necessary to look at the difficulties that I highlighted back in November in my article, Did You Miss This? 100 Percent Funding Cuts to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Courses at UK Universities. Amazingly, the extent of the cuts to arts, humanities and the social sciences — to everything except the ring-fenced subjects of science, engineering, technology and maths — has been barely noticed in either the mainstream media or the new media.
As a result, only those who have taken on board the extent of the funding revolution (which involves transferring the entire burden of funding for this vast array of subjects from the state to the individual, without proper consultation, or a mandate for doing so), have also worked out that universities across the board will have to charge the maximum fees available — £9,000 a year — in order to stand a chance of surviving.
The reason for this is simple: it currently costs more than £9,000 a year to teach students, so the maximum fees will be necessary just to provide a service that will not even be as good as it is today, in everything except the ring-fenced subjects of science, engineering, technology and maths. However, the government evidently failed to notice this glaring problem when the fee increases were first announced, suggesting that only a handful of institutions would be charging £9,000 a year, and that the majority would settle for £6,000.
Astonishingly, it has taken until now for these problems to surface in the media, even though they are of extraordinary significance, as they raise profound questions about the ramifications of the government’s experiment, in relation to its impact on the numbers of people who will be prepared to accept an instant doubling or tripling of the cost of a degree, and its impact on the costs that will have to be borne by the government, which, lest we forget, will be paying out the hugely increased fees in the first place, and will then be reimbursed after students graduate.
In the Guardian last week, in an article and an editorial that only partly addressed what is going on, business columnist Richard Alcock suggested that universities were overwhelmingly charging £9,000 a year, “rather than the average £7,500 a year [ministers] had hoped, arguably leaving the government to scrabble round to find an extra £1 bn,” because charging the lower amount will make establishments look second-rate. This argument was also followed up by the Guardian’s editors, without either party addressing the fact that decisions had been made in an effort to ensure that something resembling the current level of service can and will be maintained.
In response, the government threw a hissy fit, with universities minister David Willetts — whose nickname “Two Brains” only suggests that neither is working — indicating that the government might have to seriously cut student numbers in order to pay for the increase in fees imposed by ministers themselves, thereby jeopardizing their oft-repeated promise that they are interested in social mobility (even though all their actions across government actually indicate that the opposite is true).
There has been one slight glimmer of hope for the government — in that hugely restrictive caps on foreign students, which home secretary Theresa May intended to impose as part of the government’s immigration policies inspired directly by the BNP, were slightly lifted after intervention from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and business secretary Vince Cable.
Overall, however, the system is now so chaotic that, as well as suggesting enforced cuts in student numbers (which will, of course, do nothing to help universities survive), the government has now, via Vince Cable, proposed that universities need to think drastically about how to reduce their costs, rather than charging students £9,000 a year.
To my mind, this looks like haranguing universities for not voluntarily flagellating themselves into a state of total economic submission, but to Cable there apparently should have been “a ferment of creative thinking about how to redesign courses and manage staff change,” as the Guardian explained, with the business secretary rather condescendingly stating, “I may be missing something, but I haven’t seen much evidence of this.”
Evidently envisaging some sort of Primark-style world of university provision, based on cut-price competition — and, to my mind, chillingly hinting that sixth-form colleges will be the next “luxury” to be charged for — Cable “[drew] a comparison with sixth-form colleges, where students can receive a year’s teaching at a cost of £4,800,” and said, “To then receive less intensive teaching [at university] will leave them wondering why university is so expensive.”
He also “warned universities they could face sharper competition from new providers offering ‘high standards at lower prices,’ as well as more vocational qualifications that could lead straight to a job,” as the Guardian put it, explaining, “They will need to think about whether putative links between public reputation and price will work in their favour or not — because, fundamentally, those setting the highest prices should logically be making the strongest offer to their students, especially on teaching and employment,” and added that ministers will “support the expansion of student numbers at institutions that offer cheaper courses,” including FE colleges and private providers, stating, “If these providers can offer places that students want — at prices students want — we intend to help them grow. The corollary is that institutions not offering provision of recognisably good value — but that pitch for high prices — could be seriously squeezed.”
For NUS President Aaron Porter, all this smacks of desperation, as indeed it does. Porter stated that it was “shameful” for “government ministers who presided over the creation of a university funding system that encourages universities to charge the highest fee to try passing the blame on to universities.” He added, echoing my sentiments exactly, “Ministers are facing the consequences that everyone but them saw coming when they rushed through changes to tuition fees and they are in a state of panic.”
So now we just need to capitalize on this panic, to force the government to back down before it ruins Britain’s universities. After the TUC-led “March for the Alternative” on March 26, which drew in 500,000 people, I’d suggest that to do so we need national gatherings on a regular basis, to create new coalitions of resistance out of the promise expressed on that day.
About the author: Andy Worthington
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.