The trebling of tuition fees would unleash a new golden age for English universities, or so we were told. They would become financially sustainable, competitive, liberated from stifling bureaucracy and responsive to the needs of students. And yet, nearly a decade later, higher education is in crisis.
Tuition fees have formed part of a full-frontal assault on the living standards of a generation battered by a housing crisis, stagnating wages and slashed services. And with 83% of student loans forecast to never be paid back in full, the promises of financial sustainability are a nonsense. Both frontrunners for the Labour leadership have committed to maintaining the party’s totemic commitment to abolishing this punitive attack on aspiration, recognising that university education is a social good. But the issue goes much, much wider – and has profound implications for the future of our society.
This month, staff will begin rolling strike action at 74 universities: their list of grievances is long indeed, ranging from pensions to pay and workload. A job in academia used to be perhaps the definitive prestigious middle-class occupation, rewarded with status, security and top salaries. Yet academics have become a case study in the decline of the middle class in favour of a casualised, precarious, overworked labour force. According to the University and College Union, university staff’s real-terms pay has declined by 20% over the last decade. In London – one of the world’s most expensive cities – that collapse has been even more profound. Seven out of 10 higher education researchers are stuck with the insecurity of fixed-term contracts, and 30% of teaching at many institutions is done by so-called atypical academics, treated as casual workers and paid by the hour.
This precariousness has huge consequences: like making financial plans, long-term family decisions, buying a house, paying rent and bills, and the impact on mental health all that can have. There’s another dimension, too: casualisation fuels the already stark pay gap suffered by women and black and minority-ethnic staff. Even as pay deteriorates, the workload only mounts: in 2016, 83% of academics reported an increase in the pace or intensity of work, with the average staff member working nearly 51 hours a week.
The whole model is based on making universities compete, and, following the logic of market economics, this has created winners and losers. The Tory-Lib Dem government removed the cap on student numbers, encouraging institutions to compete with each other for applicants: but admissions rose quicker than staff numbers, inevitably reducing the quality of education.
Universities spend vast amounts on advertising, from billboards to adverts on buses – both the universities of Central Lancashire and the West of England splashed £3.4m each on marketing in 2017-18, for instance. They invest vast sums in flashy buildings that they hope students will gawp at on open days: superficial additions that are hardly the best use of limited resources. Acting rather like corporate titans, Russell group universities used resources to aggressively expand and hoover up students from middle-tier universities, often with offers that are unconditional on A-levels. “Let’s just get these students, it’s bums on seats,” as Natalie Fenton, a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, sums it up. “That completely squeezed that middle group of institutions which then found themselves in crisis, so they seek to recruit from institutions below them in the pecking order, and the whole system starts to crumble.” Nearly a quarter of English universities are now in deficit: so much for financial sustainability.
The system moulds students into consumers seeking value for money: if they are to be saddled with debt, they understandably expect an education that will open doors for high-salaried occupations. But the expansion in higher education has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in well-paid, skilled jobs, creating a ticking timebomb of disillusionment and resentment. Yet student satisfaction is also tied to how good their grades are – and, given student satisfaction helps underpin university rankings, that incentivises universities to grant higher degrees. This grade inflation is truly remarkable: the number of first-class degrees has soared by 80% since the introduction of tuition fees. This means students overall know they can put less effort in, and inevitably leads to a less skilled workforce. Is this good for society or the economy?
There’s another perverse consequence of marketisation: as debt-laden students head for degrees they think will maximise their earning potential, many vital courses suffer. The University of Sunderland is axing its history, politics and foreign language courses, for example, expressing a desire for a more “career-focused and professions-facing” approach.
“We do know that subjects go in cycles,” says Prof Fenton, “so there some courses that aren’t trendy now, it’s decided they’re not economically viable, and you end up with universities without politics or history departments.” It’s a process encouraged by a wider push to promote Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – at schools, often to the detriment of creative arts.
The student experience would improve, we were promised, yet the average price of student accommodation surged by a third between 2012 and 2018. It leaves students struggling with financial stress and increasingly holding down paid work to survive, inevitably harming their studies. What a mess: skint students convulsed with worry about tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of debt and whether there’s a well-paid job waiting for them, taught by overstressed, underpaid, precarious staff.
A flourishing higher education sector is critical to a nation’s economy and culture. That’s recognised by other countries, like Germany, which abolished tuition fees for undergraduates in public universities in 2014. Reducing university education to a conveyor belt for a narrow array of professions is a terrible error that we will all pay for. University should foster imagination and creativity, enriching society in the process. When university staff strike, they will be abandoning their lecture rooms and desks for a far greater cause than their own justified grievances. It is a battle that will help determine not just the future of our imperilled universities but our society and culture with it.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist