4 May 2020
Our higher education system was in crisis before the coronavirus emerged. It now risks collapse.
Before the pandemic, a quarter of all universities were already in deficit – the result of unregulated competition in the sector that was unleashed in order to construct a higher education market. This has led to increased instability, far higher levels of government and student debt following the trebling of fees and introduction of loans in 2012, and the emergence of a corporate mentality and market logic that puts higher education at odds with its status as a public good. As the Public Affairs Committee put it in 2018, the ‘Higher Education market [is] not working in interests of students or taxpayers’.
Universities have been effectively privatised – dependent on tuition fees and accommodation revenue and, increasingly, reliant on income from international students.
The UK comes bottom of OECD countries in relation to the proportion of public spending as part of overall spending on tertiary education. Only 25% of its spending on higher education comes from the public purse, a mere 0.5% of GDP. Compare this to the US where 35% of spending on tertiary education comes from the government or 97% as in the case of Finland.
Covid-19 is going to intensify the problems that were already there. International – and possibly home – students are likely to sit out the year leading to a ‘black hole’ of at least £2.5 billion in the sector producing enormous operating deficits and heaping yet more stress on an already creaking system.
Yet much like the pandemic itself, we are not all in this together. Universities are ‘hoarding’ some £44 billion of reserves, with Oxford and Cambridge alone sitting on almost £21 billion of wealth, and the sector as a whole regularly runs a surplus over more than £1 billion.
Management teams are now drawing up contingency plans and recovery packages and are set to announce mass redundancies, pay and recruitment freezes, promotion pauses and programme cuts. Again, as with the pandemic, the axe will not fall evenly with casualised workers, BME staff and women set to bear the greatest brunt of the cuts.
Many employers will attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to institutionalise a form of ‘shock higher education’ where online delivery becomes standard, where surveillance becomes routine, where precarity becomes acceptable, where the right to a pension becomes obsolete and where funding becomes ever more tied to employability.
Our response has to be national and local, short-term and far-sighted, practical and visionary. We need a set of actions based around solidarity with the most vulnerable and a commitment that the burden should be borne by those most able to bear it: institutional reserves should be used; excessive salaries of vice-chancellors and senior staff cut dramatically; vanity capital expenditure projects suspended; marketing budgets and the use of consultants scaled right back; government intervention as described below.
We will need to resist the imposition of a ‘new normal’. In the immediate future, we need to collectivise the risk of redundancy by demanding that instead of job cuts, we have smaller classes; instead of sacking hourly-paid staff, we should make sure that excessive salaries are curbed and the money used for contract extensions for casualised staff; instead of scrapping research leave for the year, we should use this time to investigate the political, economic and cultural challenges posed by coronavirus.
Higher education is at the centre of the scientific and critical response to Covid-19. It is not just another industry like aviation and energy. Instead it needs a full bail-out and a massive increase in public funding. We have to reject a return to the ‘old normal’ of cut-throat competition, market logic, endless bureaucracy and rampant managerialism.
Thus we also need to build a radical new settlement for the period following Covid-19. The scale of this crisis provides an opportunity to undo the damage that the market has caused in the last decade: to restore free education accessible to all as a vital public good; to reintroduce incentives, like the Education Maintenance Allowance, for marginalised communities to study; to restructure higher education so that it is no longer dependent on casualised and zero-hours contracts; and to abolish the gender and race pay gaps that remain endemic throughout the sector.
Higher education is on the brink. This is a time for imagination, solidarity and resistance.
(c) The Canary, 3 février 2020
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