Privatising the universities: the real agenda of the Higher Education and Research Bill

7 min read

Much like the privatisation of state schools, which I have written about previously, the Coalition Government between 2010 and 2015, and the Conservative Government from 2015, have accelerated the marketisation of Higher Education. A process that began under the previous Conservative Governments under John Major and Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour between 1997 and 2010.

You see, neoliberalism has been a dominant political economy since the 1970s. Neoliberalism is a special kind of freemarket capitalism, that extends beyond the traditional domains of capitalism, the factory for example, to what were previously nationalised or public services, the Post Office and Royal Mail, British Rail and domestic energy supply. The expressed benefits of privatising and marketising these services was that competition would lead to greater efficiency, better value and a smaller state.

Neoliberalism has been such a successful manifestation of capitalism (for some), effectively a state subsidised private sector businesses with, by-and-large, something of a monopoly, the private sector has been creeping into to many other public services. The Multi Academy Trusts that run schools are private companies, prisons too are outsourced to private companies like G4S. There was even an attempt to sell off Land Registry lately. Now we are starting to see similar happen with universities.

It is not obvious, because it is not always easy to see the emergence of private from the public. That is, it is not always clear when an organisation is based on private or public capital. The Multi Academy Trusts are private limited companies with a charitable status, and do not make a profit in theory, though many of them generate surpluses. They do not exist in a genuine freemarket, they often have a local monopoly and they are regulated by the state. But for all intents and purposes their quasi-private market status works in the same way as any corporation underpinned by private capital. They are largely autonomous from the state, and state and local democracy, they have customers (parents and children) who have a certain amount of market choice and they provide a service that is codified and quantified by public assessment.

One of Karl Marx’s most important observations was that capitalists, or those that have access to private capital, are obliged to accumulate more capital. By capital he means money, goods or means of production that are engaged in the process of production and sale of goods and services. Accumulation is not simply down to the vice of greed, it is due to the existence of the market, if the capitalist does not accumulate capital at the same rate as the competition they will fail. Capital obliges capital accumulation. Capital, is not just about accumulating money it is more often than not the expansion and replication of existing means of production.

Now, we have observed this in schools over the last few years, large academy chains have grown very quickly and in some cases (see for example Ark Schools) have expanded into overseas projects and spin-offs in this country.

In universities the marketisation and privatisation process began in the 1990s. Ron Dearing was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, in the Major government in 1996, to report on Higher Education and consider how it might develop in the subsequent 20 years. It was hear that Dearing proposed that students should pay 25 per cent of their tuition fees. In 1998, Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, in Tony Blair’s New Labour Government, introduced student loans with means-tested tuition fees. Student grants of £1710 was replaced by income-contingent student loans.

This is ground zero on the march toward privatisaton and marketisation of universities. Blunkett effectively created a market by making students customers. This changes the dynamic, subtly, students are buyers and have choice where they spend their money.

This was strengthened in 2005 when New Labour gave universities the right to charge tuition fees of up to £3000 per year. When the coalition government came to power in 2010 this was increased to £9000 per year. Where Higher Education had been paid for through government spending it was now being paid for through private debt. It was argued this promoted widening participation in universites, while minimising public spending. This argument is disingenuous in my opinion, it disguises the forces of neoliberalism that underpin the marketisation of Higher Education (you can see the economic argument for this in a previous blog).

This brings me to the Higher Education and Research Bill which, if it passes through parliament, will further cement privatisation in Higher Education. If public and private is considered as a continuum, this is turning the dial up. Firstly, the introduction of private challenger universities will introduce greater competition into the Higher Education ‘market’. Some argue this is a good thing: shake things up a bit, put complacent universities on their toes. Fine, but Higher Education is so much more than simply purchasing knowledge and skills. It is a time for young people to explore and innovate, for students to question themselves and the world. If it is reduced to buying a ‘commodity’, it undermines so much of this. Furthermore, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) serves to commidify this experience, the metrics will lead to a race to optimise on narrow outcomes. Worse still, universities will be competing on the outcomes of parochial measures. It will contort Higher Education from providing rich, stimulating and provoking experiences to the acquisition of defined knowledge and skills. Within the TEF metrics courses will score more positively if they are linked to employment. This has the potential to undermine subjects that do not have a direct link with the world of work. These course may disappear, or be reconfigured for employability. This is at a time when we need graduates to develop creative and divergent thinking informed by the broadest study of diverse disciplines.

Of course, I have to admit, this is likely to have little impact on so-called elite universities such as the one I work in. Certainly not to the extent that it will have in many of the newer universities, where it is going to be a much tougher competitive environment. My previous university committed itself  to neoliberalism, it became observably more managerial and hierarchical, as well as expanding by opening campuses in other countries.

I concede that there are things that could be done to improve Higher Education and the quality of teaching and learning in it. But privatisation is the wrong answer.


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