British higher education is being destroyed. Uni workers are fighting back
OPINION: Marketisation has left university staff on precarious contracts and students paying more for less
Imagine putting your left hand on a table in front of you. Look at it closely. Perhaps the outline of your metacarpals are visible? Maybe you can make out some veins? Now, imagine picking up a large claw hammer with your right hand. Feel its lopsided weight, its cool wooden handle. Now, calmly, smash your left hand as hard as you can with it. Do it again. And again.
Now you understand the British government’s approach to higher education since 2010, the policies against which tens of thousands of academics are striking over the next few weeks. Over the last week, I’ve been speaking to some of them at different universities of different types across the UK. The stories they tell, about the way their jobs have got worse and worse over the last decade, are remarkably similar.
Sometimes, the government’s aim seems to be to transform universities into corporations – competitive drivers of growth, rather than collaborative ecosystems of scholarship. A bit like trying to hew a hand into a foot. But sometimes, the attacks seem more wanton than that. On average, the better educated people are, the less they vote to the right. The expansion of student numbers in recent decades is an existential threat to the Tories. Listen for the tone of conservative commentators towards the academy in recent years, and you can hear their loathing.
In 2011, the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government tried to turn higher education into a competitive market, lifting the cap on tuition fees for undergraduates to £9,000 a year while slashing government funding for undergraduate teaching. The idea was that the ‘top’ course would charge the max, while ‘lesser’ institutions would compete with lower fees.
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It didn’t work. Pretty much everyone just charged £9,000 – a cap that has now risen to £9,250.
It’s worth pausing for a second to appreciate how much of an outlier this makes England. While comparisons are often made with America, the US in fact has a thriving network of publicly owned community colleges, which educate about 75% of students and charge much more moderate fees. England is the only country in the OECD ‘rich countries club’ where average undergraduate tuition fees are higher than $10,000 a year.
Britain’s universities also get less public funding than those in any comparable country. In 2009/10, the UK government spent more than £13bn on higher education. Last year, it was less than £5bn – a drop that is only partly attributable to the drop in subsidised tuition fees.
Austria’s government spends 1.6% of GDP on higher education. India’s, 1.5%, Canada’s, 1.2%. The UK comes in last, with 0.5%. In Germany, 81% of university funding comes from the state. In the US, it’s 36%. In the UK, it’s just 23%. English universities are – significantly – more reliant on the whims of private funding than those of any other wealthy country.
After the failure of £9,000 fees to turn higher education into a competitive market, the government tried something else. In 2015, it abolished the cap on how many students each course could accept. Until then, each programme would be allocated a number of places, and students who didn’t get into their first preference would go somewhere else. This meant that they were spread out across the country, and the number of them at each institution was relatively predictable. Staffing levels could be set accordingly, campus sizes correlated with class sizes.
Now, though, universities can accept as many as they like, and with their income reliant on student numbers, the incentive is to pile them in. Some years, a course may get 50 applicants, and accept 45 of them. Others, it may get 500 applicants, and accept 450. The equivalent degree course in a neighbouring university, conversely, might drop from 500 to 50 applicants.
To accommodate these bigger bumps and troughs, they need teaching staff they can take on and lay off year by year. They need campuses that stretch and shrink. And, to attract the bumps and deter the troughs, they need public relations departments, flashy buildings for potential students to admire on open days and the like.
The effect, academics told me again and again, has been to push university administrators to invest more in the glitz and less in the grit; more in the shiny things you see on the surface, less in the people doing hard work to keep it all afloat.
Academic pay has fallen by 25% in real terms since 2010, while workloads have soared. A survey of thousands of staff last year found that they now work, on average, two extra days a week, unpaid. Graduate teaching assistants – often the first rung of an academic career – are working an average of more than 64 hours a week. The legal maximum (until the end of 2023) is 48 hours.
A third of all academics are on fixed-term contracts, though that stat varies significantly depending on who you are: while 28% of white male academics have fixed-term contracts, 44% of their female Asian colleagues do. 35% of academics at Birkbeck College in London are now on zero-hours contracts.
The situation is particularly grim for junior researchers. Around 70% of those on research-only contracts – these are people with a PhD – don’t have a permanent position, limping from research grant to research grant. Most of the other 30% only have more security as a result of EU employment laws, which say that once someone has held a post for four years, it has to be made permanent – a law likely to be struck out in Westminster’s post-Brexit bonfire of European regulations.
Younger academics told me how that precarity brings with it an endless pressure to publish, to have regular original and brilliant ideas to a deadline, which is often the opposite of how actual creativity happens. In 2013, Peter Higgs – the professor after whom the Higgs Boson is named – said there was no way he would have got an academic job had he only been starting out now, because he wasn’t productive enough: he didn’t have lots of little ideas conveniently on deadline. He had one big idea, which changed the world. In the decade since his comments, pretty much everyone I spoke to said things had only got worse.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that half of staff show signs of depression, and 60% say they are likely to leave the sector within five years due to pay and conditions.
Already, senior academics tell me, more and more colleagues are packing up – either for other countries, where salaries tend to be higher, or for other professions.
Those I’ve been speaking to over the past week, ahead of their strike, are feeling grim.
Goldsmiths professor Natalie Fenton said academia is “500%” more stressful than when she started in 1989. That’s not just thanks to fluctuating student numbers, but changes in the wake of the pandemic.
“Something to do with the shift online means you are feeling ever less connected to it as a public institution,” she said. “It’s enabled management to do all sorts of things without any real consultation.”
The oversubscription of Russell Group institutions, meanwhile, means students there have a worse experience, she adds, while students at the other end come into underfunded universities that are having to sack staff, meaning they too get a worse experience than they would have had pre-2015.
To deal with these peaks and troughs, some universities have outsourced recruitment to temping agencies, including ‘UniTemps’, which is an offshoot of the University of Warwick, and has franchises across the country, placing ‘members of the university community’ in jobs within the university and surrounding businesses.
As Fenton puts it, the result is “people not committed to the institution”.
The UK’s higher education system, with its steep hierarchy of ‘elite’ (usually aligned with ‘ancient’ or ‘research-led’) universities at the top, and newer universities supposedly further down, is also relatively unusual internationally. In most countries, it works more like schools – people tend to go to their local institution, unless perhaps they are studying a particular subject that somewhere else specialises in.
Britain’s system has its pros and cons – I won’t go into them here – but what it does mean is that its supposedly elite universities have always been massively overrepresented towards the top of international league tables.
Those who advocate market competition tend to argue that it allows the strong to ‘rise’ while the weak sink. But the reality is that some of the supposedly best universities seem to be doing worse, too.
There are three main international league tables. In each of them, three fewer English universities made the top 100 in the 2022 rankings than did in 2010. There were between ten and fifteen ‘top global universities’ in England before the Tories came in. Now, there are between seven and 12.
This ‘elite’ status is also part of UK higher education’s financial strategy. The government doesn’t need to fund universities, the argument goes, if they can attract international students willing to pay vast fees, and if they can attract international research funding. And to some extent, some of them can.
But largely, international research funding pots meant the EU. And where the UK used to be the second most popular global destination for international students, after the US, it has now been overtaken by Australia, with Canada the fastest growing, according to pre-pandemic statistics.
Partly, this is because international students have been dragged into the moral panic about migration, and the Home Office has made life harder and harder for universities hosting them. In the latest round, home secretary Suella Braverman recently suggested that international students who hadn’t got a ‘skilled job’ within six months of graduation would be deported.
And it’s not just British nationalism that threatens this funding model. A large part of the new strategy relies on ever-expanding demand from the children of Chinese elites. But Xi’s own turn towards nationalism means that foreign education no longer has the importance it used to in the officialdom of the Chinese state. And in any case, China’s own universities are growing in prestige.
The war on woke
Perhaps just as galling for many of the academics I spoke to was the right-wing culture war on universities themselves. Last week, the right-wing think tank Civitas produced a league table of “woke” universities, whose compiler moaned that “universities have adopted, wholesale, a mutation and splicing of past radicalisms that include Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, Freudianism, and Maoism, fomented largely through public subsidies”.
The report, based on compiling media reports and looking at university websites, marked universities down if they have anti-racism training or procedures to anonymously report harassment. It is, in other words, profoundly silly, the kind of right-wing trolling that academics would have just ignored in the past.
But as well as being picked up across the right-wing press, it played into a broader trope pushed by Tory MPs and picked up by government ministers and the Office for Students, which now regulates universities. Under this framing, any challenge to right-wing views or bigotries is treated as an “attack on freedom of speech”, and under a bill currently progressing through Parliament, universities will have a legal duty to protect such “freedom of speech”.
For many of those I spoke to, the prospect of the government regulating what is said on campus, particularly in the current context, is a worrying development. In reality, many said, the moral panic about freedom of speech on campuses has led to more regulation of academics, more restrictions on their freedoms.
Last week, the Universities and Colleges Union announced 18 days of strike action over the next couple of months, with 70,000 academics planning to walk out of 150 universities across the UK. Many of these days are timed to coincide with other unions, including school teachers, whose working conditions have also deteriorated hugely in recent years. Action on this scale is unprecedented in our universities.
But when I talk to university staff about it, most seem to think that few people beyond their campuses will notice – that, compared to doctors and nurses and posties, there is little sympathy for thinkers and researchers and teachers, for people who play one of the most important roles in curating, advancing and sharing the accumulated knowledge of 200,000 years of human experience.
I hope they are wrong. And I, for one, will be taking my daughter down to cheer them on on the picket lines. See you there?
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