The third and final reading of the UK’s HE Bill has been scheduled for next Monday, 21 November. If it passes the Commons and then the Lords, it will become law. Thanks in part to the turmoil around Brexit, this Bill has flown under the radar for virtually everyone, perhaps even most students and academics. But the consequences, if it passes, will be disastrous. Many academics seem to think it is just yet another piece of regulatory dross, yet another bureaucratic millstone to add to the many around their necks – and thus barely worth registering a protest about. The reality is actually very different. As I’ve warned on this blog before, the Bill will have a drastic impact on the economy of UK HE, and on the education we provide. Last-ditch resistance is urgently needed.
What the Bill Will Do
The Bill will have two main impacts: vastly accelerated marketisation, and degrading education through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Most academics have been concerned by the latter, but the former is actually more threatening.
The Bill’s main goal is not to introduce TEF – indeed, it barely mentions TEF, which is being developed through a separate ‘technical consultation’. Its overriding mission is to lower the barrier to ‘market entry’ into HE by private, for-profit providers. Private companies – even those lacking any prior educational experience – will find it much easier to attain the title of ‘university’ and issue degrees in their own name. Quality assurance regulations have already been weakened to facilitate this, and the Bill weakens them further.
If this leads to an influx of new private providers, the consequences for students will be very serious. Lured by cut-price fees (paid for by taxpayer-funded loans), they will be offered degrees that may not be recognised by employers – so-called ‘sub-prime’ degrees that have plagued private sector HE in the US, which have left hundreds of thousands of (mostly poorer) graduates with wortheless qualifications and heavy debts. ‘Market exit’ is also facilitated by the Bill, i.e. if a company does not make profits, it can close down, leaving existing students in the lurch and destroying for past graduates whatever value their degrees had.
But – and this is what few people actually seem to realise – the effects of this influx will reverberate well beyond the poor sods who sign up for degrees at these companies. Consider how private providers in HE actually make a profit. First, they don’t provide anything surplus to profit-making requirements: so, no community outreach and inreach; no research; no impact and public engagement; no work with schools; no adult education; no student unions and often no libraries. Second, they cherry-pick cheap-to-provide, popular courses in vocational areas like Law and Business. Third, they employ casualised staff on high-load, low-wage contracts.
There is obviously no way that traditional, established universities can possibly compete with this business model as they are currently configured. Hence, private providers will undercut them, leading to lost revenue in areas where these providers specialise. This will have two effects. First, it will imperil the internal economy of established universities. These relatively cheap-to-provide subjects generate a signifcant surplus when £9000 fees are charged; this money subsidises subjects that are less popular (like languages) or costlier-to-provide (like the sciences). Undercutting that diminishes effective demand will destabilise these arrangements. Second, established universities will respond to this competitive threat by emulating the private providers’ business model. We are already seeing massive casualisation in the name of ‘flexibility’, while real wages for permanent staff fall every year in real terms. Universities are also already shedding their non-profitable activities, like Leicester closing down its adult education system.
For these reasons, the effects of the Bill will not be limited to a few marginal institutions like London Met. They will reverberate throughout the HE system. Whole departments will close, and some institutions may fold. Entire regions could be left without universities offering key subjects, or even without universities at all. What remains will be an even more fragmented ‘system’ than before, offering extremely uneven education, and with staff terms and conditions radically worsened.
Better known are the plans to introduce a TEF to parallel the REF. I discussed this extensively before and won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say that the TEF will radically hollow out university education by encouraging teaching to the test and spoon-feeding, and force staff to attend constantly to student ‘satisfaction’, which is not connected with what students actually learn.
Again, many academics seem highly complacent about the TEF. Again, it seems that many think it will only affect marginal institutions. But early modelling suggests that many long-established institutions will do very badly indeed – not necessarily because they provide crap teaching, but because of the crap metrics being used. Moreover, TEF is a powerful lever the government will hold in perpetuity. TEF levels will be used to regulate fees, with higher-ranked institutions able to increase them and vice-versa. But the government has also proposed using TEF to force institutions to work with grammar schools and to limit overseas students to high-scoring universities. So the TEF can be harnessed to all manner of retrograde policies — which, incidentally, will only further undermine universities’ financial sustainability.
The pathetic ‘resistance’
Resistance to the HE Bill has been nothing short of pathetic, exposing the limits of the exclusive reliance on government lobbying by the sector’s peak bodies. Partly this is because the sector has become increasingly divided and is thus incapable of speaking with a single voice. Some institutions – stupidly – think they can benefit from the Bill. Specifically, some Russell Group institutions have prevented the group from opposing a link between TEF and overseas recruitment because they think it will allow them to increase their market share. This vile, short-sighted and narrow-minded approach essentially leads them to collude in an increasingly xenophobic immigration policy.
But the response also reflects the complete lack of political imagination on the part of bodies like Universities UK and, of course, the University and College Union. UUK has always relied simply on lobbying government in private. That worked pretty well when ministers listened, under the Labour government and, to a lesser extent, the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. But after 2015, UUK lost its access. No one wanted to listen to them. The splitting of the HE portfolio across two ministries under Theresa May only makes the situation worse. The Bill has progressed to its third reading without any substantial amendments whatsoever. The government has simply not listened to the sector, dismissing its objections as self-serving ‘producer interest’. But despite this glaring fact, UUK has not innovated — we do not see VCs leading a public campaign to alert voters to the dangers of the Bill and press their MPs to oppose it. They continue lobbying, without any success, while making plans to accede to government diktat; they have already conceded defeat.
As for UCU, they have been even more pathetic, as one might well expect from a union that consistently fails to represent its own members and ‘leads’ every industrial dispute to miserable defeat (see here, here, here and here). Again, ignoring the fact that the government is disinterested in listening to academics, they have merely asked members to write to their MPs. By contrast, the Convention for Higher Education – a loose grouping of academics opposing the Bill, including me – has always argued that the only way to sway MPs is to create pressure on them from their constituents – from wider society. To this end, among other efforts, I created a campaign pack that could be used to alert teachers, students, parents, business leaders and councils to the dangers, and ask them to demand that their MPs oppose the Bill. UCU, however, refused to distribute this pack to its members, since they had ‘their own campaign’ – the aforementioned (and doomed) ‘write to your MP yourself’ approach. They declined even to use the material to broaden their own campaign’s focus. UCU’s leadership has had to be forced, by progressive members of the national executive, to pledge to lobby parliament on the day of the third reading. But it remains to be seen if this even materialises.
More broadly, as stated above, there seems to be a tremendous complacency among academics – a sense that this will not affect them or, if it does, it will simply be one more annoying box-ticking exercise. This is not only mistaken, it betrays the extent to which the academy has become a group of conformist sheep. Academics have spent so long capitulating to stupid government policies they have forgotten what it means to resist (if they ever knew). Their response to everything is game-playing, so playing the game has increasingly replaced their fundamental purposes. And this extends, by the way, to many of those who consider themselves political radicals. Indeed, surely the academy has never been so full of ‘critical’ scholars, yet so supine in the face of state power?
What you can do
We are in the last ditch. There is still a slim possibility to defeat the Bill, or at least have it amended to blunt the worst of its excesses. In previous readings, only Tory MPs backed the Bill; everyone else opposed it. The government has a majority of just 12 – it is weak. Pressure needs to be put on all MPs to oppose (or amend) the Bill, but especially on backbench Tories who might rebel. The main things you can do at this late stage are:
- Join the National Demonstration for Education this Saturday in London, jointly called by the NUS and UCU. If well attended, it could put pressure on parliament.
- Write to MPs demanding that they oppose the Bill or at least amend it. If you are based in a Tory constituency, or know people who are, try to rally support from other groups to pressure their MP. See the resource pack here.
- Join the lobby of Parliament on 21 November, the day of the third reading. Watch the Convention website for details.