By Pete Hunt (Lancaster University Student)
Apparently the economy is in a bad way. The current coalition government, in an effort to make it all better, has launched a programme of austerity and privatisation, slashing public services and introducing market forces to formerly public institutions. In an effort to curb public spending, the government has allowed, in many cases for the first time, foreign and domestic private capital to invest in public services or contracted private companies to run formerly public services. Whilst large scale privatisation may have begun with the neo-liberal dogma espoused by Thatcher and Reagan in the 80’s and continued in various forms by every Government that followed, we are now entering a new phase of privatisation. Previously untouchable public services such as education, the NHS and even the Police and Fire Service are under threat from the encroaching power of the market.
Under the New Labour government of Tony Blair, with the trade unions smashed and a militant left wing scattered and divided these market forces were tentatively introduced into both healthcare and education. Within the NHS this took the form of PFI schemes, which whilst raising profits in the short term later resulted in a later financial crisis within the health service. Market forces were introduced into higher education in the Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998, allowing universities to charge a flat rate of £1000 a year for families on incomes over £23, 000; this was then raised to £3000 in the 2004 Higher Education Act. This signalled the end of the right of free education, with many in the Labour party expressing disgust at these actions. In 2010, the coalition government announced it would be taking on recommendations from the Browne Report, and raise caps on tuition fees to £9,000. At the same time it removed huge amounts of funding for both teaching and research along with a raft of other reforms. As you may remember, this caused a bit of a fuss; a massive, loud, occasionally violent fuss.
So why should you give a damn? With the new caps in place and the student movement’s last protest being a poorly organised, publicised and attended mess, it’s easy to think the battle is over. And why is privatisation such a bad thing anyway? It’s argued this will not only cut government spending, but improve efficiency through the application of market principles. This is the line put forward by the Government and other interested parties. Interested parties in this context meaning large multinationals and investment funds who want to use you and your education as a means to profit and have been lobbying for decades to be allowed to do so. The cost of this neo-liberalisation of our education system has already been seen, with a drop in applications of 6.3% in 2012 and 7.6% in 2011. The introduction of private equity run for-profit universities in the USA has also been a disaster leading to Wall Street money manager Steven Esiman to remark
“Evidence suggests that for-profit schools charge higher tuition than comparable public schools, spend a large share of revenues on expenses unrelated to teaching, experience high dropout rates, and, in some cases, employ abusive recruiting and debt-management practices.”
Obviously this is not a fate we desire for our own higher education establishments. Our close neighbour, the University of Central Lancashire, is about to move dangerously close to this situation. The Vice-Chancellor, Malcolm McVicker, has written to our Secretary of State to apply for a change in the corporate form of the university. This will allow, for the first time in the UK, a higher education establishment to seek foreign and domestic investment from private equity firms and allow sections of the university to be run exclusively for profit. At the moment, UCLan has the same status as most of the “New” 1992 group of universities, which whilst run as corporations, are limited by statues to ensure all university assets and property, are used for educational purposes.
However, if the University changes to become a private company limited by guarantee (under the name UCLan Group), it would be able to set up subsidiary for-profit companies and use university assets to attract private equity firms. This puts university assets and property in danger of asset stripping. These firms have been champing at the bit to get into the UK Higher Education market as they have done in the USA. The changes UCLan is proposing have been championed across the investment sector by Eversheds consultancy firm, as a possible fertile new market for investment and profit. Eversheds have claimed that moving to this new form allows for “greater freedom” in how it attracts investment. This is similar to the discourse surrounding the break-up of the NHS as well as the provision of academies in the secondary education sector, with private providers allowing similar “freedom” to privatise our institutions by the backdoor.
There are other dangers beyond that of asset stripping, abusive employment and drops in quality. There are potential effects to the financial, academic and management accountability of the university. If UCLan goes ahead with its changes, the VC will have the power to dissolve the academic council and the current governing body, allow university assets and property to be used for non-educational purposes and finally, via the introduction of subsidiary companies, make the university less financially accountable for its actions.
In the UK our other experiments with privatisation have met with criticism, such as the much maligned disability benefit tests carried out by Atos. The attempted backdoor privatisation of the National Health Service via the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill has also met huge opposition from the pretty much every established Royal College of medical professionals as well as large numbers of activist groups to name a few. More than this, it is about what we value in our education system and what it is for. If we introduce powerful market forces into the university sector, we the students become simply a means to profit by unaccountable private firms, our degrees become commodities and the value of having a well-educated populace, enamoured with critical thinking skills and a wide knowledge base becomes simply another exercise in profit making and greed. Most recently it has emerged that British Universities have slipped significantly on global league tables, with three Universities dropping out of the global top 100 since 2011. At our own University we can already see similar types of profit driven behaviour by upper management, with last year’s Business Processes Review as well as the closure of the music course.
Whilst the tuition fees may be in place, it is clear from the actions of our government, private companies and the upper management of our universities, that they can still think they can squeeze ever more profit out of our attempts to better ourselves and improve the skills and knowledge collective of the nation. The fight against privatisation is very much still on, and possibly the most decisive battleground is be found only one stop away on the Lancaster to Euston line.
A petition organised by the UCU can be found here: https://www.ucu.org.uk/uclanpetition
Sources and Further Reading