Britain, greet the age of privatised Higher Education

Let’s be clear about what has happened. The House of Commons has not voted only for a rise in tuition fees in English universities. It has voted for the privatisation of British Higher education.
Alan Finlayson
9 December 2010

Let’s be clear about what has happened. The House of Commons has not voted only for a rise in tuition fees in English universities. It has voted for the privatisation of British Higher education.

In July of this year, David Willets announced the creation of Britain’s second private university – the first for 20 years. That university, offering Business and Law degrees, is run by BPP, a provider of various professional qualifications, listed on the Stock Exchange since 1986. In 2009, BPP became part of Apollo Global Inc. – a joint creation of Apollo Group, an Arizona-based company listed on the NASDAQ, and private equity firm Carlyle Group (famous to fans of filmmaker Michael Moore as the organisation that joined the Bush political dynasty with the Bin Laden’s and which featured in his Farenheit 911).

The purpose of Apollo Global is to make profit from the opportunities presented by a global knowledge economy in which individuals need qualifications in order to sell themselves on the global labour market. But entering that market is challenging. The entry costs are high. It takes a lot of money to build and staff a campus, and years to develop the kind of reputation that inspires full confidence in potential applicants. And there are already lots of established ‘brands’ providing Higher Education, many of which have the advantage of operating in a state-supported environment and which, as public interest organisations, do not need to create profits for shareholders.

That is what the coalition has changed.

Remember that the changes to Higher Education funding do not only raise student fees. They also reduce, and in some subject areas entirely eliminate, the support provided by government. In raising fees to £6000, universities will not be bringing in twice as much as before, but simply breaking even. Since they are already short of funds, the incentive to raise prices higher while cutting costs is huge. Three things are thus likely to happen in just a few years.

Firstly, as the established universities raise their prices, the market for cheap distance learning degrees, delivered through a combination of online courses and occasional meetings in hired halls, will rise. This is the model developed by BPP.

Secondly, established universities will find it attractive to go into partnerships with such providers, either sub-contracting courses to them or being sub-contracted. Many universities already make use of a lot of part-time and temporary labour (notoriously hiring people on nine-month contracts and avoiding salary costs over the summer vacations). A private firm that organises that cheap labour (including those academics who lose their jobs in the cuts) could make decent profits for minimal outlay.

Thirdly, as the University and College Union has repeatedly stressed, there will be universities forced into bankruptcy. When they are, the government will blame those institutions and praise market forces while making their remains available for sale – at a no doubt enticing price – to any global asset company wanting an easy entry into the newly liberalised market for residential degrees in the UK.

There are plenty of impressive-looking private universities all over the world. But Harvard, Yale and others are venerable self-regarding institutions using their funds and investments to sustain their own prestige. The private universities that will come to fill Britain will be owned by international shareholders unconcerned with the global intellectual status of teachers, researchers and students, preoccupied instead by the quarterly return on their investment. As a result, our private providers will pack classrooms, hire cheaper teachers (demanding that government put pressure on outdated trade unions and professional associations), and put on shorter degrees in the cheapest subjects.

That is the very opposite of what the coalition claims will be the result of its policy. But it is what has happened with all the other public services the Conservatives sold off last time they were in power. The only thing that we cannot be sure of this time around is which Liberal Democrat minister will be the first to leave the cabinet in order to take up a position on the board of a private provider of Higher Education.

But this is not all. For the funding reforms do not affect all subject areas evenly. The decision to target resources at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) seems, on the surface, very sensible. These are expensive fields and there is a need to ensure that there are more graduates skilled in these areas. But that good sense provides cover for an outright attack on the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. In removing all funding from these areas, the coalition is both rigging the market in which it pretends to believe and deliberately undermining the very fields of learning that can best contribute to collective understanding of our social, economic and political situation. That is to say, it is seeking to undermine the kind of thing that enables citizens to understand what is being done to them, why, and by whom. It is seeking to weaken the fields that help people know who they are or what they might be; knowledge that is part of what everyone needs to question authority and become fully human in fast changing times.

And so, the coalition takes a bold step to a very clear future. A nation already dependent on others for food and energy will become dependent on others for education, skills and qualifications, and will no longer be educated to recognise or question such dependency. Well done Conservatives. Well done Liberal Democrats. First class.

The debate continues with an article by Alan on how David Willetts is trying to conjure away the dangers of higher education reform with the magic word 'choice'

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