The Great University Open-Cast Mines

Education for competition
Education for competition

Ian Parker reviews Andrew McGettigan’s book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (ISBN: 978-0-7453-3293-2), published by Pluto Press at £16.99 on 30 April

The minority Conservative government propped up by Orange Book liberals keen on neoliberal reform has an ideological agenda above and beyond hypocritical claims that it must take emergency action to deal with the ‘financial crisis’. The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall in 2004 did not have a chapter on higher education, but they have enthusiastically embraced the Tory agenda, and reneging on their commitment to scrap tuition fees is just the start of it. In fact, the restructuring now being carried out has not even had to be ratified by the promised but delayed ‘Higher Education Bill’ (to match the 2011 Education Act and 2012 Health and Social Care Act). The ConDems have been able to move so fast because the main lines of the marketisation of higher education were actually laid down by the previous labour government. An advisor (Charlie Leadbeater) to the Blair government argued back in 2000 that ‘Universities should become not just centres of teaching and research but hubs for innovation networks in local economies, helping spin off companies for universities, for example. Universities should be the open-cast mines of the knowledge economy’.

Now Andrew McGettigan’s invaluable analysis of the state of higher education in England (there are a specific questions in Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland that would have to be analysed separately) in his The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education published by Pluto Press gives us a detailed picture of what the government is up to now, and how it is driving through its reforms. Andrew had been a postgraduate student of philosophy during the Middlesex University destruction of the radical research centre there in 2012. A campaign fought to keep the philosophy centre open, and when that failed – some would say there was a little victory at the end because the centre was snapped up by Kingston University and most of the staff saved their jobs – activists were still left puzzled by what had gone on. Why would Middlesex close down a high-status course that was bringing in research funding? It turns out that not only shedding the centre and the staff still would leave the university with a regular income from the Higher Education Funding Council to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds (for research already registered in the previous dodgy national research census). Middlesex had succeeded in driving out critical academics so it could reposition itself in the new undergraduate education marketplace.

What comes through in McGettigan’s book is a very direct message: Neoliberal restructuring of higher education now is not primarily to do with saving money but with educating students and staff to compete with each other. Yes, it is true that George Osborne wants to cut the ‘block grant’ administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills by £3 billion (down from £5 billion to £2 billion a year) by 2014/15, but this reduction is, first, designed to be permanent (it will not be restored when the ‘crisis’ is over) and, second, it is designed to bring into being ‘a new regulated market in higher education’. The massive increase in student fees from £3,375 to a maximum of £9,000 for students in the state-funded universities is only a first step, student loans will be made available to private providers (and new universities can now be formed with only 1,000 students), the block grant from government to universities will be slashed even further (to bring about a ‘level playing field’ with the private sector), and finally the £9,000 cap on student fees will be lifted not only from the private universities – it already has been – but from the state sector too.

The shift to tuition fees and student loans introduced under Labour and driven forward by the current government goes alongside the transformation of the state university sector into a new market. McGettigan shows how private equity companies are moving in to take advantage of this market. They know how to navigate it, exploit and fillet it so that for-profit learning will replace open-access public education. McGettigan is focusing on England, but we can already see how things will go if we look across the US. The largest university in America is the University of Phoenix with about 500,000 students, and is larger than all of universities of the elite ‘Russell Group’ of universities in Britain combined. A quarter of the Phoenix budget is spent on advertising, and this reels in students who will take out massive loans, with the real sting in the tail being the completion rate, the proportion of students who are able to get through the course and emerge with a degree, which is an amazingly low 9%. The founder of Phoenix is now a billionaire, but the students who go through this place are poorer, and the staff who are employed on part-time contracts are unable to defend themselves, let alone defend ‘education’ as such. Why does this matter to us? Phoenix is part of the Apollo Group which also owns BPP University College of Professional Studies, which was granted university status in the UK in 2010. This was the second private university created (after the University of Buckinghamshire), and there will be more and more of these.

The threat does not, of course, only come from outside (from US imperialism bringing the free market to the UK so it can extract profit from our own universities), but from the deregulation of the state universities who turn themselves into corporations (and then look overseas to try and extract profits from student markets there). The universities here are turning to joint ventures with private companies, outsourcing of services (the University of Sussex occupations were a response to this) and setting up ‘external’ campuses. This is something Middlesex had set its sights on (with external campuses in Dubai and Mauritius), and more recently the University of Central Lancashire at Preston (UCLan) in the North West of England attempted to go private so that resources could be shifted very fast to new campuses in Cyprus, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Overseas student income is an especially lucrative market – nearly 50 percent of visas issued for entry into the UK are to students – but the ideological offensive in education then comes into conflict with the ideological offensive over immigration, so things are being steered now to fly academics overseas, and keep the students there. And even that conflict of interests is tied up with marketisation and privatisation of the university sector. The investigation by the UK Border Agency into student visas at London Metropolitan University (LMU), for example, was triggered by what McGettigan calls ‘a lucrative validation deal’ with the London School of Business and Finance (a private college which was due to take 5,000 overseas students sponsored by LMU).

We can see very clearly that the universities restructured as corporations must be able to move quickly and flexibly to exploit opportunities, and, like any other corporation, any democratic accountability must then go out the window. Students who are told that they are ‘customers’ and lured in by promises that the customer is king soon discover that they are just commodities in this new market. Lecturers are told to buckle down and give the students what they want – but only if the customer demands a product that will help them compete with others, not if they ask for a space for critical reflection on knowledge – and are reminded that they are completely dispensable. And workers that run and clean the campus, who work in the reprographics and kitchens, have their own conditions of service trashed as they are moved into private outsourced companies.

McGettigan gives us analysis and diagnosis, and he shows us what the stakes are for what he calls the ‘public debate’ that must happen before a Higher Education Bill is passed through parliament.  He is not promising us more than that in his book, and what he does is to brilliantly and clearly describe what we are up against. But things are moving very fast, have moved since this book went to press, and we also need some signs of hope. There are some. The Middlesex struggle (in which the university was, as he says, able eventually to ‘strip its own assets’) mobilised students, it was part of a new wave of action linking student and lecturer activists. The UCLan privatisation has been beaten back by combined union struggle (even if the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills claim that it was transfer of pensions that was the sticking point), and there are many other struggles – Sussex is just one of them – where democracy and accountability are the watchwords of new campaigns. They are resisting the logic of capital which turns people, ideas and education into commodities on the market-place, and these new activists in the universities are working together and thinking for themselves, which is what education should really be about.

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