The British university system is at a crossroads. The recent Browne Review combined with the Lib-Con spending cuts spells out a dire future for the university. The proposal to remove the cap on fees, to slash funding for teaching in all the arts and humanities, and the continued imposition of market models on research and teaching are leading to far more than a ‘tightening of the belts’ – they will completely change the nature of the university.As the government slashes the university teaching budget from £3.5 billion to just £700 million, fees will rise up to a cap of £9000 per annum, with many universities opting out of the ‘public’ system as fees become the dominant source of income for university departments. Guided by the market rather than by social need or academic exploration of knowledge, courses will become designed by ad-men and accountants, where the only concern is selling the ‘product’. Individual departments – or even whole disciplines – will be allowed to fail, as the determining logic becomes ‘if they don’t make money, then they aren’t important’. Whole universities face the prospect of ‘corporate takeovers’, as it becomes more cost-effective for a UK university to be run as a department of ‘University Inc.’ – with courses designed thousands of miles away by business men looking to dominate and exploit the market. Indeed, what’s to stop any corporation taking over a university if it is a financially viable business? Bradford University has already proudly announced its ‘Morrisons’ degree program that promises you a supermarket degree for a supermarket career.
As students and staff at different places within the university system, we can see a different way forward. We propose the following three reforms to the higher education system, exploring who should pay for them and how they should be run. These reforms offer a different way forward to the ideologically imposed ‘slash and burn’ of the Browne Review and the government. These reforms are the first step in transforming the university into something it has never been- an educational institution in hands of society, that focuses teaching and research on improving human and ecological welfare rather than bolstering private profits and reproducing elite and commercial values. There reforms should be understood as the opening of a new trajectory for the university system, and at the same time to provoke wider questions about the principles according to which our society is run.
Read the reforms:
Crisis as possibilty
The future prepared for us by Lord Browne and the Lib-Con’s is contemptible and unthinkable. Their future will see academic courses designed not by academic staff but by ad-men and accountants. Courses will be decided upon not for their academic rigour or their contribution to human betterment, but on their ability to be ‘sold’ – education as product. Students will have to accept huge wage cuts offset onto their future earnings, just for the privilege of producing profits for someone else. Their future is an unfair and elite system geared towards the betterment of the few.
Ultimately, their future serves as the death knell of the university. When their unthinkable future finally and inevitably fails – and it will, for how many of us can really carry the burden of £100k more debt spread across our lives? – the final buyout of the university shall commence. Every course will become a ‘Morri-Course’, as corporations willfully swoop in to take direct control of the university. Who would be stupid enough to pay for their education when a corporation will pay for them? The privatisation will be complete; the university will have finally become nothing but an in-house research and training unit.
It can be different.
As the only people who can profit from the university are the businesses that employ us, the university should become fully funded through corporation tax. As an institution which everyone should benefit from – not just those who can afford to pay – all university decision making should be free from the market and the restrictions it imposes. We don’t want to gain degrees from the ‘Pepsi-Cola Metropolitan University’ or a PhD from the ‘University of JP Morgan’, and we don’t want to research how to ‘engineer societies’ to make them more financially productive. The university should not be a research laboratory for private corporations, but a common institution that works in the interests of the people. The university should strive to produce knowledge which is for the benefit of society as a whole – not for those private interests who can afford to fund research.
We are proposing the creation of an alternative future, a university that works in the common interests of all, towards solving the problems we face and providing us with the capacity to live well. A university that fosters critical thought, passion, creativity and a genuine search for knowledge, not a space where students are passive consumers filled with facts and figures. This will invariably demand an overhaul in how we decide what is taught and researched. We must design a university that belongs to its participants – by the staff that teach and research, by the students that study, and by the support staff who keep the whole thing running. We will need new feedback mechanisms that qualitatively improve the university, rather than market models that short circuit our endeavours. We must find new ways to make the university respond to the society of which it is part – research goals must be determined by popular needs not private profit. All of these are questions we must pose; these reforms open the space to let us ask them.
The university is in crisis. It is up to us to decide its future.